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Cartoon Character ‘Meena’ Changes South Asian Attitudes Towards Girls

Screenshot from the cover of Meena Comic Book. Courtesy Unicef

Screenshot from the cover of a Meena comic book. Image courtesy UNICEF

Only two decades ago, the status of many women in some South Asian countries was low. Many girls in rural areas were not allowed to study. Girls were inevitably married off as soon as they grew up, so what good was studying? Boys would get the best of the households’ food, the girls the leftovers.

But this discriminatory mindset has changed tremendously, in part thanks to a cartoon character.

The fictional character Meena stars in the South Asian children's television show of the same name. Promoted by UNICEF, Meena and her TV show is very popular in the region. UNICEF developed the Meena Communication Initiative (MCI) as a mass communication project aimed at changing perceptions and behavior that hamper the survival, protection and development of girls in South Asia.

Bangladesh was the first country to meet Meena when a film about her struggle to go to school aired on Bangladesh national television (BTV) in 1993. The secondary characters of her stories include Meena's brother Raju and her pet parrot Mithu.

Meet Meena. Image courtesy Wikimedia

Meet Meena. Image from Wikimedia

According to an old report of UNICEF:

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 has spread messages to stop child marriage and the practice of dowry and promote healthy toilet use, sending girls to school, equality between boys and girls and the right to education for the domestic workers. Her shows highlights the potential contributions to society that girls can make if provided an equal playing field.

How can a message spread by a small cartoon girl be so empowering that it has helped change the society radically? Housewife Naznin Rahman told the Daily Prothom Alo [bn]:

আমার মা জোহরা বেগম তাঁর দুই ছেলের বিয়েতে যৌতুক নিয়েছেন। তখনো টিভিতে মীনা দেখাতে শুরু করেনি। তারপর যেই তিনি মীনা দেখতে শুরু করলেন, তাঁর চরিত্রে মেয়েদের প্রতি আলাদাভাবে একটা সহানুভূতি কাজ করতে লাগল। তারপর যখন তাঁর ছোট ছেলের বিয়ে দিলেন, তখনই আমরা বুঝতে পারলাম তিনি মীনার দ্বারা কতটা প্রভাবিত। আম্মা আমার ছোট ভাইয়ের বিয়েতে যৌতুক নেননি।

My mom Zohra Begum has taken dowry for her two elder sons. In those days, Meena was not aired. Since she started watching Meena, she had developed a special sympathy for girls in particular. When she had her younger son married, we realized how she was affected by Meena. She did not take any dowry for my younger brother.

Shuvo Ankur wrote on the BDNews24.com's kids page about the positive changes Meena has provoked:

প্রচার হবার পর থেকেই মীনা পেয়ে যায় দারুন জনপ্রিয়তা। এবং এর ফলে আসতে থাকে বেশ কিছু পরিবর্তন। আগে গ্রামাঞ্চলে মেয়ে শিশুদেরকে স্কুলে যেতে না দিয়ে বাড়ির কাজ করানো হতো। মীনা কার্টুন প্রচার হবার পর থেকে আস্তে আস্তে ঘটতে থাকে পরিবর্তন। কারণ মীনা কার্টুনেও দেখানো হয়েছে যে তাকে স্কুলে যেতে দেয়া হতো না। কিন্তু কিছু ঘটনার পরে তাকে স্কুলে যেতে দেয়া হয়। এবং মীনা বিভিন্ন বুদ্ধিমত্তার পরিচয় রাখতে থাকে। সে লেখাপড়া শিখে তার বাবাকে ঠকে যাবার হাত থেকে রক্ষা করে। আবার বাড়ির গরু চুরি ঠেকায়। এমনি সব কাজের জন্য মীনা হয়ে যায় সবার জনপ্রিয় এবং সার্কভুক্ত দেশগুলোতে মেয়ে শিশুদেরকে অবহেলাও কমে যেতে থাকে।

Meena achieved popularity from the start. The changes were visible soon after. Earlier, in rural areas girl students dropped out of school and ended up working as a housemaid. But the situation changed after Meena's show began airing. On screen, Meena was also not allowed to go to school first. But she changed her lot and got permission to go to school. Meena's wit and intelligence allowed her to learn to count and other essential knowledge to save her father from the deception from other people. She saved their cows from a thief. Her intelligence became popular, and the negligence of girls in South Asian countries slowly started disappearing.

Sohanur Rahman [bn] wrote on Kishorebarta that there is a lot to learn from the cartoon show:

[...] মীনার কাছ থেকে আমরা অনেক কিছুই শিখেছি। সেই ৯০ দশক থেকে আজকের দিন প্রযন্ত প্রায় ১৭ বছর ধরে মীনা আমাদের সমাজের প্রতিটি মানুষের মনের মনিকোঠায় একটি উজ্জ্বল চরিত্র হিসেবে স্থান দখল করে নিয়েছে।

We have learnt a lot from Meena. From the '90s till today, Meena has become a star and a special character in our society.

Meena is also broadcast on radio. Farzana Islam Tithi, 24, who voices Meena, told The Daily Star:

Everyone loved Meena from their childhood and everyone, regardless of age, watched the cartoon eagerly. I also used to watch it. May be Meena’s accent struck to my mind since then and I believe that feeling helped me in my voice over for Meena.

Twitter user Bengalithings deemed Meena a role model:

The UNICEF Bangladesh Twitter account (@UNICEFBD) reminded that:

Every year on 24th October “Meena Day” is observed in Bangladesh to promote social awareness on 100% enrollment of kids in school, avoid dropouts and ensure proper education.

According to reports [bn], Meena has also become popular outside of the South Asian region. It has been dubbed in more than 30 languages such as Arabic, Burmese and Chinese. You can download free Meena comic books from here.

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