Shimu: Bangladesh’s real life ‘Meena’ enthralls millions on TV

Meena’s uncle has arranged for his daughter Rita to marry Babu, a shopkeeper’s son. But Rita is only 15 and has not yet finished school. With Meena’s help, it comes to light that Babu, who is studying to be a doctor, does not want to get married yet, especially since he knows it is unsafe for young girls to become mothers. To everyone’s satisfaction, the marriage is postponed until Rita is 18 and has completed her education.

That’s the storyline in Meena: Too Young to Marry, which is part of the hugely successful cartoon animation series Meena, which Unicef produced with leading animation houses in South Asia during the 1990s. It was part of the Meena Communication Initiative.

Its central character is Meena: a spirited, nine-year-old girl, living in a typical South Asian village, facing all the usual challenges of growing up — whether in her efforts to go to school, or having enough to eat, or in fighting the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS in her village. In a sub-region where many families still favour boys over girls, life is not easy for Meena, but she finds ways to not just cope but flourish.

Now comes the news of a real life Meena in Bangladesh.

Shimu - photo courtesy Washington Post

Alo Amar Alo is the name of a live action television drama series that promotes girls’ education in Bangladesh. Launched in July 2007, it is currently running on Bangladesh Television, BTV.

Alo Amar Alo (“Light My Light”) centers around a girl named ‘Alo’ who stops going to school when she completes Class V. Throughout 26 episodes, the story follows Alo as she struggles to overcome life’s challenges through the support and friendship of a renowned actress.

Playing the role of Alo is 13-year-old Shimu, who suddenly finds herself the star of the country’s most popular television series.

In an article profiling her, The Washington Post wrote on 14 September 2007: “Shimu, a youthful Bangladeshi version of Winona Ryder, is recognized across the country for her moving role as the spunky 11-year-old heroine Alo. On Wednesday nights, more than 10 million viewers tune in after the 8 p.m. news to see her character put through the gantlet of family entanglements and financial strains that afflict many of the young girls in this desperately poor, densely populated South Asian nation. Alo must fight to stay in the fifth grade while her uncle demands that she work in a garment factory and other family members urge her to marry so they will have one less mouth to feed.”

“Teachers say that Shimu’s photograph hangs in classrooms across the country on posters advertising the show and that her story has become a symbol of the struggle to keep girls in school.”

Elsewhere, the article notes:
“As in Latin America’s telenovelas and many African and South Asian TV dramas, story lines in Bangladeshi programs are often infused with messages decrying social ills such as child labor, domestic violence and early marriage. Many of the shows are low-budget productions funded by nonprofit organizations or the government. Shimu’s show…is funded by the Education Ministry and UNICEF; actors receive modest stipends.

Being a TV star has not changed Shimu’s life, says Washington Post writer Emily Wax. Even though Shimu is on television, her family does not own a TV set. She and her friends watch the show at the theater group’s center.

Her grandfather, Mohamed Siddiq, 61, is quoted saying he wants Shimu to stay in school but is worried that she may end up marrying or working, since their family is being evicted in a month and has no savings.

“We are illiterate. I really want Shimu to stay in classes,” Siddiq said. “It’s just so hard to survive here.”

Read the full article about Shimu in The Washington Post online

The Alo Amar Alo series is funded by Unicef and the Ministry of Education in Bangladesh. It’s part of a communication strategy which includes interactive popular theatre shows, folksong performances, wall paintings and Meena Communication Initiatives.

“These have been extremely effective in raising awareness on the value of education as well as reaching the remote corners of the country through the mass media. Parents have shown more willingness to send girls to school. The increase in the enrollment of girls has also been the impact of multiple awareness raising campaigns,” says Unicef Bangladesh.

But big challenges remain. The Washington Post article draws parallels between the character Alo and child actor Shimu.

“Sometimes I feel she should support me,” Shimu’s grandmother, Ayesha, 49, who was herself married at 12, is quoted as saying. “Boys want to marry her. They are always harassing her. Even though she is known for her acting, it’s very hard to make a living here. If she were married, we wouldn’t have to worry about feeding her.”

To which Shimu says, simply: “It’s better to stay in learning for the future. I want to try.”

One concern is I have why Unicef is exploiting a child actor without adequate pay. The article refers to actors receiving ‘modest stipends’. If Shimu was paid better for her natural talent as well as considerable time she doubtless spends on acting in Alo Amar Alo, surely that can make a difference in one child’s life? Or is that not statistically significant for Unicef?

Photo of Shimu courtesy The Washington Post

Meena image courtesy Unicef