Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper on 17 January 2014
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager turned activist, was a key newsmaker of 2013. Having survived an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen in October 2012, she has now become a global champion for educating girls.
Long before Malala, there was another spirited young South Asian girl named Meena. Like Malala does today, Meena too spoke out on behalf of girls — their right to education, health, nutrition and, most important, to be treated the same way as boys.
Like Malala, young Meena was passionate, intense and yet always courteous. While Malala challenged the intolerant Taliban, Meena took on an equally formidable adversary named…tradition.
Malala and Meena could have been sisters in arms — except that the latter isn’t quite real. She is a beloved cartoon character developed by Asian animators and development communicators two decades ago.
Meena is an enduring creation of the UN children’s agency Unicef, which blazed new trails in communicating child survival and development topics in the 1980s and 1990s. Since her début in 1992, she has been going places and winning hearts. This year, she turned 21.
As Unicef’s own website describes her, “Meena is a cartoon character from South Asia. She is a spirited, nine-year-old girl who braves the world – whether in her efforts to go to school or in fighting the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS in her village.”
There is no fundamentalist group threatening Meena’s village. Instead, it is grapples with the common enemies of poverty, ignorance and orthodoxy.
The Meena Communication Initiative (MCI) was a creative effort aimed at changing perceptions and behaviour that hamper the protection and development South Asian girls. It was a response, in part, to the SAARC Year of Girl Child observed in 1990.
Meena was conceived in Prague, born in Dhaka and grew up in a typical South Asian village. Her originator was Neill Mckee, a Canadian communication professional who then headed communication and information activities at Unicef Bangladesh.
He wrote in a 2003 essay titled ‘Cartoons and Comic Books for Changing Social Norms’: “Meena is a part of an education-entertainment strategy that engages the hearts and minds of people of all ages. In South Asian cultures, the child, especially the girl, does not have a voice and is not recognized as a real person until she comes of age in her adolescent years. The Meena stories are designed to deal with issues sensitively instead of coming into direct conflict with traditional beliefs.”
The idea occurred to him, Mckee says, while attending a conference in Prague. “I was trying to figure out how we could use animated film and comic books in Bangladesh. In fact, as I woke up one morning, a girl child character came to my mind and I began to try to sell the idea and raise the money to create her.”
Back in Dhaka, he brainstormed with his colleagues and they agreed that the character should be a bright young girl around eight or 10 years who is living with a family consisting of father, mother, grandmother, elder brother and a younger (baby) sister.
“We needed a sweet, short name common to all the South Asian countries, and I came up with Meena. It was approved by all the seven nations – Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Maldives, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka,” he says.
Meena’s pet, Mithu, was added for greater entertainment. The initial idea was for a pet monkey, but Lankan officials apparently objected. Then India suggested a parrot – a good idea as the bird could talk some words, and accompany the girl everywhere.
Rendering this cast into visual form and giving them voice and nuance was not easy. Two decades ago, video animation in South Asia was not well developed. After a search, Unicef invited Ram Mohan, an Indian who had been working on animations since 1956, to lead the effort. He collaborated with the Hanna-Barbera animation studio in Los Angeles and their affiliate, Fil Cartoons of Manila.
Much pre-production research was done to get Meena’s ‘look and feel’ right. In all, Unicef staff and the animation team conducted some 200 focus group discussions in four countries, involving a total of 10,000 children and as many adults.
Dressing up Meena (and other women characters) was a particular challenge: it had to look South Asian, yet not too specific to any culture. Saree or salwar kameez or dress? To get around this, a minimal and generic look was chosen.
As Mohan recalled: “This particular costume which we came to use later…was generally accepted everywhere. They said, ‘yes, a girl from any of our villages would look like this’.”
Storylines and storyboards also relied on plenty of market research. The eventual appeal of the stories was rooted in such attention to detail and fine-tuning to meet local preferences and sensitivities.
The first episode of Meena animation series, titled ‘Count your Chickens’ was broadcast on Bangladesh Television in December 1992. It creatively showed why it was so important for girls to receive the same education as boys.
Meena: Count Your Chickens
Later episodes illustrated many other rights enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into effect in 1990.
Over the years, Meena stories have tackled issues such as access to education, child health and survival, sanitation, gender equity, child labour, HIV/AIDS and early marriage. Later additions covered topics such as girls’ right to play and coping with disasters.
Although the series was broadcast on TV channels across Asia, animations were only the ‘flagship medium’. Its creators realized that multimedia dissemination was essential to reach different audiences.
So they also produced other materials such as a radio series, comic books, posters and folk media items. These rolled out in several key South Asian languages.
Thanks to this multi-pronged outreach, Meena became a popular ‘star’ in many parts of South Asia within a short time. In 1995, Newsweek identified her as “one of the actors to emerge on the world’s stage in 1996.”
“The Meena series represents a new approach to communication on the girl child issue. The series’ objective is simple, if not daunting: to try to change the attitude of the region’s over one billion people when it comes to how girls are treated,” noted Christian Clark, who headed the Meena initiative at Unicef’s regional office for South Asia in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Clark, himself a former cartoonist and one-time writer for Sesame Street, wrote in an essay co-authored with McKee: “Animated film can portray difficult social issues and values in sensitive, non-threatening ways, without losing message impact. The stories and messages provide a ‘hook’ into the culture without alienating or threatening cultural integrity. In addition, animated films can be dubbed and produced in many languages at little cost…”
The Meena stories are quite entertaining, but at the same time they do reflect the stark realities of girls’ lives in South Asia. Meena’s success has inspired an African counterpart named Sara, an adolescent girl between 13 and 15 years of age. She has a pet monkey named Zingo.
“Both Meena and Sara are uplifting role models for girls. They are empowered girl figures who are able to act, to ask questions and seek solutions to the problems which face them and their friends and family,” note co-creators Clark and McKee, looking back on these twin projects that have assumed momentum of their own.
The little crusaders have much unfinished business!
Meena: Will Meena Leave School?
Meena: Too Young to Marry
Images and videos courtesy Unicef