Meena is for all
Imagine this: a young girl from a small village who has a pet parrot. She is South Asian and doesn't have much money but yet she is a household name throughout the region. When she speaks she can command an audience of hundreds of millions of children.
Who is she? She is Meena.
She's not known by any other name. She’s feisty, courageous, humourous and above all she is beloved. It’s a wonderful sight to see; a group of young girls and boys who light up like a birthday cake when you mention their friend, Meena. To them she is alive, she is fun and she is inspirational.
Let me introduce you. Meena is a 9 year old girl who was born in Bangladesh in 1991. She has a pet parrot called Mithu, younger siblings Raju and Rani and they all live together with Meena’s parents and grandmother in the village. In many ways, Meena is just like any other little girl you know. But in some ways she is completely different.
Meena is a cartoon character. She is the culmination of years of research and she is now a daughter not only of Bangladesh but of India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. She was developed out of a need to confront the extreme discrimination against girls in South Asia. She would talk about serious issues such as education, early marriage, unequal food and work load.
So how did Meena become so famous? She became famous because her parents in UNICEF spent a lot of time and energy making sure she was the right little girl to speak on behalf of all South Asian little girls. And that research was undertaken on many fronts: what should she look like, where did she live, what did she like to do, how many siblings did she have, did she have a pet and what was she going to say?
She was conceived with the help and guidance of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons. Animation was thought to be an accessible way to reach children, as well as being lots of fun. To make sure Meena was acceptable and likeable 200 focus groups in four countries were conducted as well as 50 interviews for each episode. In all, over 10,000 children and equal numbers of adults were estimated to have participated in the research process.
“All my friends love Meena. I have known about Meena since class 3 and she is a friend,” says 10 year old Nasrin from Bangladesh. “Meena has a friendly parrot called Mithu. That parrot taught Meena maths and she was able to count her six chickens and she also helped catch a thief who stole her chicken.”
'Count your Chickens’ was the first Meena story and as Nasrin can tell you it is still a firm favourite. “Meena is a girl student from a poor family who wants to study and by studying wants to achieve many things,” says the 10 year old from an urban school in Dhaka.
As each book says on the opening pages, Share in Meena's adventures as she laughs, climbs trees, asks questions and solves problems, and shows you all the things that a little girl can do.
And this is what Meena is all about - showing girls what they can do. Since her inception 14 years ago she has shown millions of women and girls what can be achieved. She has delivered messages on issues as far reaching as solving the problem of bullying through to challenging the stigma of HIV/AIDS through to girls' right to play sport. The Meena stories are highly entertaining and fun, but also reflect, at their core, the realities of girls' lives in South Asia.
Meena tells her Granny, in the book Reaching Out which deals with HIV/AIDS, what she has learnt in school, "teacher says that you cannot catch it by being someone's friend, by touching them or playing with them." Then with the help of her brother and parrot, Mithu, Meena visits her neighbour who is sick with HIV/AIDS, talks to a health worker for the correct information and helps the community understand the illness and how it is spread.
From a germ of an idea in the early 1990's in Bangladesh to a household name in the most populated region on earth. In Bangladesh, there is universal awareness of Meena and 95% know the Meena television series. In a survey conducted in 2004, respondents universally opined education as the most important topic of the Meena Communication Initiative, followed by early childhood care and gender related issues. 66 percent children and adolescents believed that their parents sent them to school after watching Meena.* All this in 14 years. Not bad for a girl from a small village in South Asia.
“She is a simple rural girl, her parents are poor, she studies under hardship, she's very inquisitive, always wants to study, she’s very intelligent, loved by all as she studies well, I also love Meena,” says 9 year old Sheehab. “I have a 12 year old sister who loves Meena too and we watch the Meena cartoons together. We sit together during the holidays and watch. I wish Meena was on TV every day and not just on the weekdays. I don't like it when I can't see Meena.”
Meena burst onto a world which was unfamiliar with cartoons but more particularly unfamiliar with a South Asian girl cartoon who would tackle some of the big problems facing girls throughout the region. For many she was, and still is, the role model who can lead the way. She reaches millions of households and for many she is a real person who is struggling to find her way in the world. UNICEF Bangladesh has even received calls from small children who ring to ask whether they can speak to her.
“When I was in playgroup I first heard about Meena and started watching the Meena cartoons. I instantly liked her and I saw her first at home and then later found her in many places,” says Sheehab.
It’'s no wonder that Sheehab and everyone in his family knows Meena; she is everywhere. She is on TV, on the radio, in the newspapers, in the school curriculum, on billboards and even on the national airline carrier, Biman. She has been embraced.
As young Sheehab says, “Meena is for all.”