Don't mess with the girls

Victoria Neumark on a new series that is helping to empower women in south Asia

Six girls aged between 14 and 17 in a village in Nepal were discussing the first episode of Meena, an animated series produced by Unicef to promote the importance of girls in this, the Decade of the Girl Child in south Asia. "Nobody ever comes here to ask us anything. Does our opinion count? We are poor uneducated, we live in a village?" Judging by these responses, the decade has some way to go.

One girl rose angrily to her feet at the end of the showing of an episode to say: "You have come too late! You should have come 10 years ago, then I would have gone to school. Now I am too old to go!" Such vivid reaction shows both the need for, and value of, Meena. Its overall theme - that girls need educating as much as boys, both for their own future and to assure the prosperity of their families and villages - is central to the work of Unicef. In "Count Your Chickens", for instance, a little girl with a talking parrot is forbidden to go with her brother to school. She must stay at home and mind the chickens. So she sends her parrot to school and he teaches her the multiplication tables. Practising the two-times table, she suddenly sees that one of the chickens is missing, gives chase and catches the thief. Many of the details, from the ever-present babies to the unkempt facial hair and nervous twitch of the thief, are appealingly true to village life, while the animation, by Hanna Barbera (of Tom and Jerry fame) and Ram Mohan Studios, is polished and delightful.

Satisfyingly, the series progresses through many of the crises that face young south Asian females determined to overcome the dual disadvantages of poverty and gender expectations. In "Will Meena Leave School", the father's reaction to economic crisis is to suggest that the girl should be at home. But when Meena's education enables her to spot a crooked mistake in a shopkeeper's bill, and the teacher helps her mother get a government loan to buy a cow, girls' education seems less of a luxury and more of a necessity.

In "Dividing the Mango", Meena and her brother Raju change places for the day. Raju is exhausted by the menial and demanding tasks that Meena has to perform and is outraged at being given her much smaller portion for supper. Fairness would not only make everyone happier; it would create more productivity.

In "Saving a Life", Meena saves her little sister Rani when she has diarrhoea and in the process demonstrates simple rules of hygiene, diet and home remedy.

Rachel Carnegie, screenwriter for Unicef, spent four years, mostly in Bangladesh, researching her subject. The next seven episodes will develop existing themes and build on the rapturous reception of Meena, particularly in Bangladesh.

Meena is now part of a whole communications package that extends beyond Asia. The programmes have been dubbed into eight European languages and Arabic. Burma and China are also planning to show the series. Comic books, posters, teachers' guidelines and a back-up BBC radio series are also widely distributed, with merchandising of mugs, T-shirts dolls and stickers spreading the image of Meena.

For the UK, the series has two advantages. Older secondary students can explore development education: not just the issue that gives the series its content, but the medium that is used to deliver the message. Animation, with its light-hearted plasticising of the trials and tribulations of life, offers a smooth medium in which to convey educational messages. As Ram Mohan, the series animator, says, "Animation makes issues universal."

In Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, Rachel Carnegie discussed "Meena's Three Wishes" with a group of workmen. In this story, the tale of Aladdin becomes absorbed into Meena's dream of magical powers. It is used to illustrate the necessity of using latrines, drinking clean water and washing the hands with soap or ash. The workmen were accustomed to criticism, and used to shrugging it off, but they were touched by the format of the programme. "Our lives are full of mud and you have brought us a pearl," said the oldest of them.

There are many issues as yet untouched by the series. Even though girls do have a worse time of it than boys, children's rights are severely restricted in south Asia. Child labour and servitude is a great wound in the body politic. The character of little Raju is next to be developed.

But the series is above all a vital tool for enhancing the self-image of Asian girls, probably the first time that most of them have seen screened representations of themselves. That alone would validate the series for use in classes with Asian girls, particularly where teachers are concerned that girls are too quiet and under-achieving.

When Rachel Carnegie took Meena into a school with a large Bangladeshi community, she and the teacher were delighted to see how animated the girls became. Suddenly they were experts. Suddenly their experience was on the screen for all to admire. Meena, who "seems so real", as one girl put it, is an inspiring heroine beyond the confines of her village.

* Meena, BBC2 Learning Zone, Thursdays, 4.30-5.00am until March 20 (Six programmes in series)

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