Using Social Media for Women’s Rights: Breakthrough

Using Social Media for Women’s Rights: Breakthrough Blog Image

The horrific Delhi gang rape case in which a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was murdered as a result of a grotesque sexual assault brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets of the city to express outrage about the prevalence of gender-based violence in India.  Many have credited access to sites like Facebook and Twitter for allowing Indian citizens to express their dissent, but the story of political organization and awareness campaigns on the ground is much more complicated and predates this galvanizing high-profile crime by a number of years.

For example, Breakthrough describes itself as “a global human rights organization that uses the power of media, pop culture and community mobilization to inspire people to take action to ensure dignity, equality and justice” in campaigns that target “critical global issues including violence against women, sexuality and HIV/AIDS, immigration and racial justice.”  Breakthrough came into public consciousness with the launch of a music album and music video, An Album of Women’s Dreams, in August 2000.  Their offices include activists, social media mavens, journalists, communications researchers pursuing graduate degrees, and often savvy online experts who have experience in all four roles.

The extraordinary staff members at Breakthrough agreed to sit down for an interview for DMLcentral in their Delhi offices to discuss the variety of strategies they deploy.  As Radhika Takru, the manager of social media of Breakthrough in India, explained, they adapted elements from an earlier campaign about taking action to prevent violence against women: Ring the Bell or Bell Bajao in Hindi.  The Ring the Bell initiative originated in 2008 with an emphasis on taking action to interrupt domestic abuse by ringing the doorbell at the first sound of a victim in trouble on the theory that the inaction of bystanders perpetuates cycles of violence.

The campaign has since gone global.  The TV ads and strategies have been adapted in countries from China to Canada, Vietnam to Pakistan.  In 2012, Breakthrough launched Ring The Bell: One million men.  One million promises – a call to men and boys around the world to make tangible promises to act to end violence against women.  Much as the Kitty Genovese case in the United States came to symbolize the lack of public safety and community empathy prevalent in New York city in the 1960’s, the death of Jyoti Singh Pandey and the beating of her male companion was perceived as more than just an individual crime against a couple lacking safe transit home from a movie date.

According to Takru, using International Women’s Day as the occasion for action, Breakthrough launched a campaign to get one million men to “make tangible promises” to promote women’s safety, such as “if a woman is waiting for an auto at night, I will help get her one.”  Working out of Delhi and out of their New York offices, Breakthrough sought to capitalize on synergies between music, traditional media, social media, and community organizing and also produced videos to stimulate conversation on topics such as violence or masculinity in the media.  Ring The Bell was launched through a series of events coordinated by the Breakthrough teams in New York, New Delhi, and the Indian cities of Ranchi, Lucknow, Mangalore and Sonepat as well as by partner organisations in Brazil, South Africa and Malaysia.  In India, they also joined forces with to generate about 200 blog postings, while in New York, Sir Patrick Stewart hosted the launch of the campaign.  By the end of the launch, #ringthebell had made its way into the list of trending topics on Twitter.

Managing online messaging involves many kinds of invisible labor in tending the social interchanges facilitated by Internet access.  Breakthrough staff must defer counterproductive trolls advocating “men’s rights” and trying to derail meaningful conversation, distance themselves from revenge-oriented advocates for the death penalty and affirm their position in the global human rights community, and steer discussion toward using the right naming conventions and applying the right metadata – so that like-minded others can locate content through search engines or by scanning the posts of others in their social network and therefore have the means to participate.

For example, Breakthrough carefully discourages language that defines a woman by her family relationships, on the theory that campaigns that urge people to protect women only according to the logic that a given female is someone’s daughter or someone’s sister do little to promote autonomy or selfhood.  Takru also describes how she uses the @Bell_Bajao Twitter voice to sometimes retweet problematic statements in order to encourage her audience to “correct the message,” however well-intentioned it might be.

Breakthrough staffers are well aware that Facebook and Twitter often respond to momentary trends in the zeitgeist of political news in which participants like, share, pledge, or sign online petitions in transitory expressions of solidarity.  For example, much as Facebook users in the United States changed their profile pictures to indicate a support for marriage equality or for the family of murdered African-American teenager Trayvon Martin, Indian users of Facebook adopted the icon of a black dot on a white background to show sympathy for Jyoti Singh Pandey.  Although many Facebook users have changed back to their typical photo avatars, Takru facilitates a variety of forms of long-term engagement in many emotional keys that extends affinity beyond the initial moment of collective shock.

For example, because satire is such an important way to effect political change, Takru must also make decisions about when to use humor to address such a sober subject.  For example in her Tweeting identity as @Bell_Bajao, Takru has had to address irrational theories that rape can be discouraged if women wear stockings that simulate hairy legs or that rape is stimulated by the practice of eating chow mein.

Critics of social media as a tool for political change, such as Malcolm Gladwell or Evgeny Morozov, note that sites such as Twitter privilege English-speaking, literate, tech-savvy urbanites and fail to engage the masses or respond to the embodied experiences of those who are oppressed.  Breakthrough has tried to address the potential shortcomings of digital media for large-scale outreach by using a variety of mass media, mid-media, mixed media, and folk culture strategies.

For example, in their most recent campaign to discourage early marriage in a country in which teenaged girls may be pressured to wed, despite the law, Takru doesn’t expect rural villagers to “like our page” in sites without electricity, connectivity, or other infrastructural basics, such as reliably clean water.  In response, Breakthrough is using “video vans” with content that responds to the needs of particular linguistic and ethnic communities.  The organization adopts a randomized control trial philosophy that tests combinations of approaches, such as youth training or mass media, and they also use a “360 degree methodology” to engage different audiences.

As Takru describes, to get their message out, Breakthrough uses techniques from Augusto Boal’s “theatre of the oppressed.”  In each community, talented street theater performers put on “a lovely play without an ending” about “Chanda,” a girl who “has aspirations to study but has a father forcing her to get married.”  A moderator encourages members of the audience to finish the story and facilitates a lively discussion about the various arguments and counterarguments among the hypothetical Chanda's extended family and interested community members that may come into play.

Another staffer, Shobha SV, an expert on online harassment faced by women very publicly present on the Internet, pointed out that India has “the largest mobile phone ownership in the whole world” and that “everyone has a mobile, even in the poorest slums.”  She demonstrated an impressively adaptive mobile phone system for rural villagers that can function as a kind of oral online social network.  Much like Tad Hirsch’s  Freedom Fone, the system takes advantage of the relatively limited radio offerings in the vicinity that are often restricted to state-run media and film music in different regional languages.  Working with Gramvaani, Breakthrough has developed a cellphone menu that also allows participants to air grievances, listen to the thoughts of their fellow locals, enjoy folk music, and hear updates on hyperlocal events.

I have written about public advertising campaigns promoting public health and safety and human rights around the world for the past decade, including at the internationally known blog Osocio, but Breakthrough – and the group that I will profile next Blank Noise – stand out for their imaginative and thoughtful approaches to questions of autonomy and civic membership in the planet’s largest democracy.

Banner image credit: Breakthrough (human rights group)