By Anjali Singh, Womens Feature Service
Nine-year-old Meena is in the news once again. This time it’s because the cartoon character that has been educating children across India on issues of gender, health and social inequality through stories in comic books has now been given a voice.
Every day Meena comes on air for the children of Uttar Pradesh (UP) on All India Radio (AIR). Launched recently from AIR’s Lucknow and Lalitpur stations, the 15-minute entertainment program is broadcasted six days in a week. At 12.30 pm sharp, hundreds of students tune in to the show in their classrooms itself and they make no secret of the fact that they are really excited to hear their beloved friend.
Reshma Bano, 12, from Gosaiganj credits Meena for inspiring her to become a lawyer. “When I hear Meena speak, I can identify with her completely. In fact, I feel that I am better than Meena and that I can do a lot more for my village and community. That’s why I encourage all those people who don’t send their children to school to listen to Meena and understand how important it is for children to get educated. My parents too love to hear Meena speak and accompany me to the homes of the people who don’t send their children to school. I also tell them that like Meena we should all work to improve our society and help each other lead a better life.”
Adil, 15, of district Amethia Salempur, is also a big Meena fan. His eyes sparkle as he declares this, and claims that she has inspired him to become a police officer. “Just like Meena I too want to fight social evils like alcoholism, gambling and theft, which are huge problems in my village. Meena has helped bring in a tremendous change in the mindset of my friends and family. Now they show more respect to women and girls and send their daughters and sisters to school,” says Adil.
Adil and Reshma are not the only ones talking about Meena, who has emerged as a role model for millions of children across South Asia. A spirited nine-year-old, Meena along with her brother, Raju, and a garrulous parrot, Mithu, has been inspiring schoolchildren, their parents and even teachers through entertaining stories.
Explains Lalita Pradip, Director, District Institute of Education and Training (DIET), “Until now children were listening to the stories of Meena in English and the character has been instrumental in ensuring a change in mindsets by taking away the fear attached to speaking English that most children coming from rural backgrounds have. Even the teachers were very excited about the fact that their students seemed to have responded instantly. Through Meena, kids are learning lessons without being under the pressure of examinations and tests. This model has been extremely successful in most schools under us. Now, with the launch of the Meena radio programme in the regional language as well, the audience base will expand further, hopefully leading to the community, parents and educationists getting more sensitised. Even those children who drop out of school will benefit with AIR now broadcasting it for all.” And that is precisely why Meena, in her first radio incarnation, was brought to UP, with its poor record in school education.
Says Adele Khudr, Chief of UNICEF, UP, “Through this radio incarnation, children in the remotest villages will be reached and touched by the world of Meena.”
Conceptualised by UNICEF in early 1990s, with the help and guidance of Hanna-Barbera, the legendary creators of The Flintstones, this smart, fun-loving and simple child, represents ordinary girls in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal. Along with her pet parrot, Mithu, Meena confronts the problem of extreme discrimination that girls in the region face. She has endeared herself to both the young and the old and stories based on Meena’s world are now available in a number of languages, including Bengali, English, French, Hindi, Nepali, Portuguese, Spanish and Urdu.
But does Meena’s radio avatar match up to her printed version? Avers Angela Walker, Chief of Communications, UNICEF India, “She retains her usual charm but with added roles. Using the powerful medium of radio she now communicates messages on many important aspects of child rights, gender and child-friendly schools. While she addresses key issues related to social and behavioral changes, she does it in a most entertaining manner.”
Terming the decision to launch Meena on radio a landmark one, Santosh Yadav – a former bureaucrat and the only woman to scale Mount Everest twice – was present during the inaugural broadcast of the show in March. Taking her own life as an example of how an ordinary girl from a village of four households reached the top of the world, Yadav in her interaction with a large number of schoolgirls who had come from the eight blocks of Lucknow, talked about how Meena was an inspiration to her too.
As Yadav put it, “There is no such thing as destiny. It is important to aim high and go for it. Society is invariably against the girl. Many families succumb to social pressure and discourage their daughters. But as daughters we [must] persist with determination and march on. Then parents and family will support us and eventually society will fall in line. Education through radio is a powerful medium of self-instruction as well. I myself learnt English listening to the radio and was able to clear the tough IAS exams. So I feel Meena is a very apt gift to all the children in UP who have dreams of becoming something in their lives.”
And she is not wrong. Surveys by the Primary Education Department reveal that Meena has proved to be a successful advocacy and teaching tool, promoting girls’ education and children’s rights through short films, spots, book, videos, and so on. Since the use of Meena advocacy material began, not only has attendance in the government-run schools in UP risen by 30 per cent, the dropout rate too has come down.
And Meena knows her own value. She declares in one sequence, “I am motivational, I am inspirational and most importantly I am enjoyable!” Little wonder then that her voice is ruling the airwaves.
(c) Women’s Feature Service