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July 2000 - Issue No. #39 (p.15-16)
It was a holiday. Meena and Raju went for a walk in the nearby woods. They were fascinated by the trees, plants, flowers and birds of various colors. While moving around, they saw a nest on a branch of a tree. There were two baby birds in the nest. They wondered where these baby birds had come from, how they had come. Raju asked, "Meena, can you say which of these two baby birds is a girl and which is a boy?" Meena replied, "It doesn't matter which is a girl and which is a boy. You will see, after a few days, both of them will be able to fly."
The story above is taken from Birds Will Fly, a storybook for children developed in Bangladesh by the UNICEF Meena Material Production Team. The story was written in Bangla and has been translated into English; each sentence in the story is accompanied by a colorful illustration of Meena, her brother Raju, the forest and a bird's nest.
Meena is a cartoon character developed by UNICEF for South Asia to empower parents, other family members, teachers and community members to treat boy and girl children alike. The Meena Communication Initiative was developed in an area of the world where girls are routinely married off before puberty, where school enrollment for girls is 50% that of boys, where lower nutrition levels are common among girls compared to boys while morbidity and mortality rates are higher, and where girls who must work are paid less than boys and often do more hazardous work,. In addition to empowering people to treat girls and boys alike, Meena calls attention to the plight of the girl-child and provides alternatives for responding to her myriad problems.
Meena was drawn by Ram Mohan, India's best-known animator. He drew this cartoon character as a composite of typical Asian girl-child features. Her character and her stories were developed through extensive research in both rural and urban areas of
South Asia. She had to be acceptable to children and adults in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, and they had to be able to identify with her character. Ten year old Meena has a younger brother, Raju, and lives with her parents and grandparents in a typical village. Meena also has a pet parrot, Mithu, who accompanies her on her adventures and helps to summarize important points. Stories about her, like the one at left, are set in villages and contain themes regarding gender parity and child rights.
The story at left was developed to help children and adults learn that girls, just like boys, can learn "to fly": that they can be "curious, try new things, accept themselves as they are and be happy about being either a girl or a boy." (last page of storybook).
In another story, Meena wants to learn very badly, but because she is a girl, is not allowed to attend school with her brother Raju. Meena sends her parrot, Mithu, to school with Raju; Mithu learns to count and teaches Meena. One day, a thief steals Meena's chickens and because she can count, she is able to help the community catch the thief. Her father wonders how she is able to count and, while telling him, her story underscores the need for educating girls as well as boys. After this, her father decides to send her to school.
These and other stories address the issues of girls' and boys' work in the home, their access to health care, the drawbacks of the dowry system and early marriage, and the preference for boy babies. Some stories also explore treatment of handicapped children and those afflicted with AIDS. The stories are based on much research, have interesting and clever story lines and have been well received by children and adults.
Research in Bangladesh has shown that urban and rural children are now quite familiar with Meena. They know who she is and know some of her stories. More videos are being developed which intersperse real children at the beginning, middle and end of the cartoons so children will be more likely to identify with Meena and her messages.
Storybooks, facilitators' guides, comic books and videos are available, though not all are in English. To find out what's available in the country where you work, contact the UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia at the address below. Meena also has two web pages and the information there is in English. The materials, especially the stories, are a wonderful classroom resource. In addition to helping students learn English, Meena also conveys important, and at times critical, social messages.
Dividing the Mango: A Meena Story
Meena and her brother Raju decide to exchange household chores for a day to see what each other has to do. The day of the exchange, Raju gets up very early to make a fire to give his father tea and bread before he goes to the field for the day. Then Raju has to make breakfast for the other members of the family, wash the dishes, sweep the floor and straighten the house. Then he takes the clothes to the pond to wash them. About this time, Meena takes the cow to the pasture to graze. Meena spends most of the day watching the cow graze and moving the cow to good grass from time to time.
After Raju finishes washing the clothes, he has to prepare the vegetables and meat and measure out the rice and lentils so their mother can prepare the main meal. This takes most of the afternoon. In the late afternoon, Meena has an incident with the cow when it tries to run away. She gets it back, but has to work hard to do it. At the end of the day, Raju is very tired and states that he didn't realize Meena had so much to do. Meena also appreciates the hard work that sometimes must be done with the cow. They state this before their family and their grandmother says that from now on, Meena should be given as much food as Raju because they are both working hard for the family. (Usually girls are given less food than boys in South Asia.)
Meena's cousin's wife is about to give birth and her uncle is all set to welcome a baby boy. Meena teaches her uncle that girls are not inferior to boys. When the grandchild turns out to be a girl, her uncle has a change of heart about the value of having girls in the family.
There is a financial crisis in the family and Meena's family decides she should leave school to look after her little sister as her mother will have to work outside the home. Meena discusses the situation with her schoolteacher and with her help, Meena's mother obtains credit and buys a cow.
A circus is in town. A twin brother and sister, who are acrobats, are required to do the bidding of their snakecharmer uncle who believes in taking care of the boy when he falls sick but neglects the girl. Meena befriends the family, pointing out that girls and boys have an equal right to health care.
Meena, in a dream, is offered 3 wishes by a genie. Inspired by the dramatic change brought to people's lives by her dream wishes, Meena, with her friends, mobilizes her village to dig their own latrines and maintain simple rules of correct sanitary practices.
Meena's cousin Rita is being teased by a bully and his gang, and because of this she decides to leave school. With support from her mother, Meena and her friends plan together to challenge the bully. The bully learns his lesson at the end of the story and finally becomes a friend.
Meena's cousin is to get married to a man from the town. With the help of Mithu, her parrot, Meena finds out that the would-be groom's father plans to extract even more dowry after the marriage. Meena exposes this and as a result the community decides to unite against the dowry practice.
The story focusses on the issues of early marriage and early motherhood. Meena's young cousin, Tara, is to be married off. Meena's family realizes the importance of the matter and discusses it seriously together. Finally, her young cousin's marriage is postponed till she is 18 years old.
Meena is drawn into the plight of a family that returns to the village and is coping with the social pressure of AIDS. Meena helps to expose some myths about AIDS and shows how a caring community can make a difference.
UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia
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