Long before Malala, there was another spirited young girl named Meena.
Like Malala Yousafzai does today, Meena too spoke out for and on behalf of girls — their right to education, good health, nutrition and, most important, to be treated the same way as boys.
Like Malala, young Meena too spoke passionately yet courteously. While Malala challenged the ferocious Taliban, Meena took on the equally formidable adversary named tradition.
Malala and Meena could well have been sisters in arms — except that the latter isn’t quite real. She is a cartoon character imagined and developed by some of South Asia’s most talented animators and development communicators two decades ago.
UNICEF developed the Meena Communication Initiative (MCI) as a mass communication project aimed at changing perceptions and behaviour that hamper the survival, protection and development of girls in South Asia.
Here’s how their website describes Meena:
“Meena is a cartoon character from South Asia. She is a spirited, nine-year-old girl who braves the world – whether in her efforts to go to school or in fighting the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS in her village.”
UNICEF launched Meena in September 1998 after eight years of extensive research in the region since the initial conceptualization. The name Meena was carefully chosen as it was found to span the different cultures in the region: people in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka could relate to the name.
A cast of carefully researched characters was created for Meena’s family and community. It included Meena’s talkative pet parrot Mithu, brother Raju, mom and dad, grandma and village school teacher.
There was no fundamentalist group threatening Meena’s village. Instead, it was grappling with poverty, ignorance and orthodoxy.
The Meena stories are entertaining and fun, but also reflect the realities of girls’ lives in South Asia. Through story-telling, important social messages are conveyed, such as the value of educating girls, freedom from exploitation and abuse, need for hygiene and proper sanitation, and the right of girls to a proper childhood not marred by under-age marriages.
In total, 13 Meena episodes were produced through a collaboration that involved Ram Mohan Studios of Mumbai and Hanna-Barbera affiliate Fil Cartoons of Manila.
Meena: Will Meena Leave School?
Meena: Count Your Chickens
Meena: Too Young to Marry
Meena is widely recognised and appreciated in most South Asian countries, and is a successful advocacy and teaching tool for girls’ and children’s rights. The Meena figure has achieved remarkable popularity as she tackles the key issues affecting children, and the threats to the rights of millions of girls in South Asia.
I have devoted another weekend column in Ravaya newspaper (in Sinhala) to celebrate the memory of the illustrious Lankan journalist, editor and development communicator, Tarzie Vitachi (1921 – 1993). This time, I talk about his time at the United Nations, first as communication chief at UNFPA, and then as Deputy Executive Director at UNICEF.
This is the text of my (Sinhala language) column in Ravaya newspaper of 23 September 2012. I review two new books, both of much public interest, and written by two senior professionals who have been passionately committed to public safety for decades.
Protect Your Child from Injury (in Sinhala) is written by Dr Wijaya Godakumbura, while Traffic Signs, Road Markings and Traffic Signals is authored by T Perinpanayagam, a retired senior police officer.
“This year alone, more than 500,000 women will die during pregnancy or childbirth. That’s one woman missing every minute of every day. We call these women ‘missing’ because their deaths could have been avoided. In fact, 80 per cent of maternal deaths could be averted if women had access to essential maternal health services.
“We know where and how these women are dying, and we have the resources to prevent these deaths. Yet, maternal mortality is still one of the most neglected problems internationally.”
Unfortunately, critical issues like these often don’t make the news – or worse, are relegated to the background as inevitable. As Joseph Stalin said in a different context, one death is a tragedy; a million deaths a mere statistic.
The challenge to the development community is to go beyond simply counting deaths in cold, clinical terms. UNICEF has recently released a two minute video, “Missing Mothers” as a tool for international development professionals to use in raising awareness of the issue of mothers dying needlessly.
Having a baby is both a very natural process and a joyous occasion for the parents and extended family concerned. Yet having a baby still remains one of the biggest health risks for millions of women worldwide.
As Unicef’s 2009 State of the World’s Children report reminded us recently, 1,500 women die every day in the world due to complications arising during pregnancy and childbirth. The chances of a woman in developing countries dying before or during childbirth are 300 times greater than for a woman in an industrialised country like the United States. Such a gap does not exist in any other social indicator.
She noted: “The solution has been known for years. The problem is the will to make it work. We also know that the solution would benefit everyone, not just women. Yet, affordable and accessible health care, for instance, has not received the thrust that is needed.”
The Missing Women video suggests to activists and campaigners that action can start with five steps: 1. Educate girls, young women and yourself; 2. Respect their rights; 3. Empower them to participate; 4. Invest in maternal health; 5. Protect against violence and abuse. The Unicef website, meanwhile, lists 10 ways in which concerned individuals can make a difference.
All very commendable and necessary — but not sufficient. With all the good intentions in the world, Unicef’s experts and officials come across as, well, detached and geeky. They don’t connect well enough to the real world people whose needs and interests they are genuinely trying to serve. Their messages are lost somewhere in their precise terms, jargon and endless acronyms.
Just take, for example, the very phrase of maternal mortality itself. Precise but also very stiff and dry. Who outside the medical and development circles uses such terms in conversation? When I write or make films about the issue, I prefer to call it ‘mothers dying needlessly while having babies’. Yes, it’s more wordy and perhaps less exacting. But most ordinary people would get what I’m talking about.
If the jargon-ridden language reads dry in text, it completely puts off people when they watch such words being spoken on video. Such films may pander to the Narcissism of Unicef mandarins, but they completely flop in terms of public communication and engagement.
This is the same point I made in October 2008 when commenting on the Unicef-inspired first Global Handwashing Day: “Passion used to be the hallmark of UNICEF during the time of its legendary executive director James Grant, who strongly believed in communicating messages of child survival and well-being. He gave UNICEF a head start in working with the media, especially television.”
Jim Grant’s deputy, journalist Tarzie Vittachi, who came over to the UN children’s agency after a stint at the UN population fund, used to say: “Governments don’t have babies; people do”. We might extend that to: inter-governmental agencies don’t have babies; real women do. That may be why Unicef insists on delivering its life-saving messages so riddled in politically and scientifically correct, but so sterile language.
Unicef’s YouTube channel has a number of short videos related to what they insist on calling maternal mortality. Here’s an example where Unicef’s Chief of Health Dr. Peter Salama says it’s really an unconscionable number of deaths, and a human tragedy on a massive scale:
We have now passed the half way mark, but progress has been patchy and unimpressive. And it will remain so as long as the UN agencies and other development players insist on peddling jargon and acronyms. Considering the issues of life and death involved here, we must view bad communication as a killer — joining the ranks of unsafe drinking water and violence against women and girls.
Writing an editorial for SciDev.Net in September 2005, I noted: “All development workers and UN officials should take a simple test: explain to the least technical person in your office the core message and relevance of your work. Many jargon-using, data-wielding, acronym-loving development workers would probably fail this test. But unless development-speak is translated into simpler language, the MDGs will remain a buzzword confined to development experts and activists.”
I don’t believe in ghosts, but it’s time to bring back the spirits of Jim Grant and Tarzie Vittachi to Unicef to again humanise the agency so mired in its own ‘geekspeak’. The intellectual rigours of evidence-based, scientific analysis must be balanced with clarity and accessibility. It’s fine to be informed by science, but learn to say it simply, clearly and concisely.
The lives of half a million women and millions of children depend on it.
This 20 minute film, made in 1992 by Bedford Films of UK and narrated by Sir Peter Ustinov, described how the UN children’s agency UNICEF was working toward eliminating micronutrient deficiencies from iron, vitamin A and iodine in different parts of the developing world. Examples are taken from Africa and Asia to both illustrate the extent of the problem as well as steps being taken to reduce these deficiencies that cause mass-scale disability and death.
The main premise of the film was simple: those lacking micro-nutrients in their regular diet often don’t show immediate signs of starvation. This deprivation builds up over time and causes slow – sometimes irreparable – damage.
I was reminded of this film — and its still very relevant message — when reading an excellent essay by Nicholas Kristof in International Herald Tribune a few days ago. He is a columnist for the New York Times who travels the world reporting from the various frontlines of survival and struggle.
In Raising the World’s I.Q., dispatched from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Kristof was talking about ‘a miracle substance that is cheap and actually makes people smarter’: iodised salt.
Here’s the context, as he put it:
“Almost one-third of the world’s people don’t get enough iodine from food and water. The result in extreme cases is large goiters that swell their necks, or other obvious impairments such as dwarfism or cretinism. But far more common is mental slowness.
“When a pregnant woman doesn’t have enough iodine in her body, her child may suffer irreversible brain damage and could have an I.Q. that is 10 to 15 points lower than it would otherwise be. An educated guess is that iodine deficiency results in a needless loss of more than 1 billion I.Q. points around the world.”
In nearly all countries, the best strategy to control iodine deficiency is iodisation of salt — one of the most cost-effective ways to contribute to economic and social development. Especially in these hard times, development professionals are looking for smart ways to get the biggest bang for their limited (and still shrinking) bucks. Investing in micronutrients – such as iodine – can provide some of the biggest bangs possible.
In October 2008, The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, published a report that noted: “Iodine deficiency is the most common cause of preventable mental impairment worldwide.”
The medical, public health and development communities have known and talked about iodine and other micronutrients for over 30 years. Significant progress has been made – for example, UNICEF says by 2006, more than 120 countries were implementing salt iodisation programmes, and 34 countries had managed to get rid of iodine deficiency among their people through this smart strategy.
But there still are major gaps — which continue to cause preventable damage to tens of millions of people including children.
Nicholas Kristof navigates through the heavy, jargon-ridden developmentspeak and churns out an eminently readable, accessible piece. It’s written in first person narrative from a part of the world where illiteracy, superstition – and their erstwhile companion, religious fanaticism – are trying to prevent people at risk from using iodised salt. This is science writing at its finest: anecdotal, personalised and purposeful.
And he’s absolutely right when he says iodised salt lacks glamour, doesn’t have too many stars or starlets singing its praise and (almost) no one writing about it despite its potential to improve lives for so many people.
I should know: one of the earliest topics I tackled as a young science reporter – getting started in the late 1980s – was salt iodisation. I struggled to put together a readable, engaging piece — which I then had to push through jaded editors who wondered what all this fuss was about.
I have only one (minor) bone to pick with Kristof. He pokes fun at Canada for hosting and supporting the Micronutrient Initiative, “an independent, not-for-profit organization committed to promoting simple cost-effective solutions for hidden hunger and developing innovative new solutions where needed.”
He calls Canada “earnest and dull, just like micronutrients themselves”. It’s a personal view – perhaps expressed with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Having travelled a fair amount in North America, and having good friends in both countries, I think that the nation north of the US-Canada border is a tad more civilised, certainly more caring and better engaged with the rest of the world.
But then, that too is a personal view. I’m darn lucky that I get enough iodine in my diet so that I can think for myself, keep asking lots of annoying questions…and occasionally even get some answers right.
GHD is a Unicef-led initiative involving governments, civil society, volunteers and others around the world.
“Turning handwashing with soap before eating and after using the toilet into an ingrained habit could save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention, cutting deaths from diarrhea by almost half and deaths from acute respiratory infections by one-quarter,” says the GHD official website, explaining the background.
Trying saying that aloud in one breath – I can’t. Evidently, the crusty technocrat who wrote that text wanted to pack all the rationale into one long, clumsy sentence.
But this message is too important to be spoilt by an inarticulate official. Washing hands with soap can prevent diahrroeal diseases and pneumonia, which together kill more than 3.5 million children under five every year. That’s 400 needless deaths every hour, round the clock.
Fortunately, the campaigning material that went out using moving images were better produced. Here are two good examples (and a bad one).
The popular Australian children’s musical entertainers, The Wiggles, produced and donated a song to mark the Global Handwashing Day. This simple and catchy tune “seeks to motivate millions of children around the world, to transform the simple act of handwashing with soap from an abstract and seldom practiced behaviour into an automatic and enjoyable habit”.
Meanwhile, in India, cricket star Sachin Tendulkar joined forces with UNICEF to get Indian children to improve their health and hygiene as part of GHD. Tendulkar features in a public service announcement (PSA) being broadcast this month in 14 languages across India. It will target students in more than 6 million schools.
And finally, here’s Unicef’s own news story posted this week on its YouTube channel telling us more on GHD. It’s technically well made, but absolutely lacks passion. The narrator delivers her script in such an indifferent, detached tone, and UNICEF Senior Adviser for Sanitation and Hygiene pontificates also in a tone that will not win her many followers. Scenes of senior UN officials washing their hands in a demonstration are laughable. The only saving grace in this story is when we see Hayley Westenra, the well known singer from New Zealand and youngest UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, visiting water and sanitation projects in Ghana.
If only the rest of GHD promoters had the enthusiasm and passion that Hayley Westenra exudes! Passion used to be the hallmark of UNICEF during the time of its legendary executive director James Grant, who strongly believed in communicating messages of child survival and well-being. He gave UNICEF a head start in working with the media, especially television.
Alas, large UN agencies like UNICEF have little or no institutional memory for more than just a few years. Because if they did, GHD campaigns could have effectively used, at least in South Asia (where nearly half of all people lack access to toilets) an episode of the hugely popular Meena cartoon animation series.
Meena is the enchanting heroine of an animated film series produced by UNICEF in South Asia. The films are part of a package of communication materials promoting the status of the girl child in this region. UNICEF co-produced the series a decade ago with leading animators in the US and South Asia.
In Meena’s Three Wishes, Meena dreams of a magic genie that will grant her three wishes so that everyone would be healthy and never again get sick from poor sanitation and unsafe water. When Meena wakes up, she realizes that she must make her dream come true. With the help of her brother Raju, other children in the village, and Mithu, her pet parrot, Meena convinces people to build and use latrines, to use safe water and to wash their hands to stop the spread of germs and disease.
I don’t particularly enjoy it when UN agencies try to play nanny to the whole world, especially if they talk to us in such jargon-ridden, dispassionate terms. Their messages are tremendously important, and deserve wider dissemination — they can literally save lives.
That’s why public campaigns should be left in the hands of communication professionals who know how to reach out beyond the charmed development circle. For the rest of UNICEF, they should perhaps take a lesson or two in passionate communication from Hayley Westenra, The Wiggles – and their own little Meena!