Meena, now a global entity, has taught millions of children around the world, especially girl children, that they must not be afraid of pursuing their dreams and ambitions
Every year on September 24, Meena Day is celebrated in South Asia and a number of African and East-Asian countries.
Meena was born in 1990 in the communication section of Unicef Bangladesh under the leadership of Neill McKee and Cole P Dodge - the chief of communication and country representative of Unicef, respectively.
With lavish Norwegian funding and the magic stroke of the maestro animator Ram Mohan of India, Meena came into existence.
The governments of South Asia (SAARC) had designated the 1990s as "Decade of the Girl Child", in recognition of the disadvantaged position of girls in this region.
Unicef decided that if the situation of girls and women in South Asia had to improve significantly, and subsequently create a better future for the region, education of girl children must be promoted.
The Meena animated cartoon series was developed so that the masses could be made aware of the issues relating to girl children.
During that time, there were no experts on animation cartoons in Bangladesh. No one knew anything about producing them.
The first few episodes were produced at the Hanna-Barbera studio in Manila, Philippines. After that, some episodes were made in Mumbai and some were made in Dhaka.
Meena was initially named "Mina" but it was changed in 1992 after India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka suggested that the name be changed.
Meena is a Bangladeshi global child, as Shamsuddin Ahmed likes to term her.
He is a former communication specialist at Unicef Bangladesh, who was also part of the Programme Communication and Information Section (PCIS) where Meena was born.
He coined the name "Meena" for the girl, which was later approved by all South Asian countries.
"Meena was born as a Bangladeshi girl who subsequently conquered South Asia and became a global citizen over the last 30 years. She can now be found in Indonesia, the Philippines, and several countries in Africa. She was born to promote girl's education but now has become the symbol of any development communication message in any third world country," he said.
The episodes were based on topics such as education, health, gender equity, abuse and freedom from exploitation.
They were written in easy language and the stories were entertaining, so that children could understand them easily.
But these simple stories also portrayed the real lives of South Asian girls.
At times, Meena is counting chickens and catching thieves. Sometimes she is saving her infant sibling from diarrhoea, and at other times she is fighting for her rights and standing up to bullies.
Meena's costume, along with that of her mother, relatives and community members, were designed in such a way so that they were acceptable to all South Asian countries.
She embarked on interesting journeys with her brother Raju and their talking parrot Mithu.
Interestingly, Mithu was to be a monkey but it was later changed to not hurt religious sentiments in Sri Lanka.
Neill McKee, who joined Unicef Bangladesh as chief of communication and information in January 1990, shared with The Business Standard how Meena began.
In March 1990, he was invited to attend a conference in Prague, Czechoslovakia on use of animated films for development.
There he met James Grant, the then-executive director of Unicef and Bill Hanna of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons in Hollywood, California, who is also the creator of Yogi Bear and many other cartoons like The Flintstones.
Grant challenged Neill to come up with an idea to work with Hanna-Barbera. The next morning, McKee had a waking dream of a girl's cartoon.
After a lot of advocacy from Neill's side, the Government of Norway put up funds to start the research and do a pilot episode in late 1990.
We also reached out to Cole P Dodge, former country representative of Unicef Bangladesh and wanted to know other details about Meena.
Why was Meena developed as a cartoon character? He said, "The name Meena is a girl. It is accepted across all religious groups in Bangladesh and South Asia."
But why use animation when documentaries might have been easier and immediate?
"McKee along with his colleague communicators knew that an audience in Bangladesh would immediately be able to identify with a real life girl and her family. Animation, when developed carefully for Meena, could be from any of the religious communities. It is more universal," he replied.
We asked him, at that time, over half of children aged under five were not immunized in Bangladesh. So why did Unicef spend so much money developing Meena? Was Meena developed only for immunization?
"At that time, doctors, nurses and village health workers were simply doing their jobs, which included medical care, family planning outreach and diagnosis of ill adults and sick children. But Meena was a 'savvy little gal' who was developed in a variety of storylines that included safe drinking water, schooling, sanitation, family planning and practical use of ORS for treatment of diarrhoea and cholera."
He said when Meena came along, she caught the attention of the donors in a subtle way, to facilitate the integration of health and family planning.
He added that the results and the quality of the animation made the South Asian health communicators sit up and pay attention. "It was easier to work on one country but the world was transitioning to a global entity, so yes, it was a programme which was effective."
On the impact of Meena in South Asian countries, Shamsuddin said that in Pakistan, Meena and her brother Raju are Ambassadors for children's rights.
In India, the Meena series has been integrated as a communication tool within the ongoing nationwide education and communication programmes. State-owned radio and television channels are airing spots promoting girls' education featuring Meena.
In Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, the State Education Department established a group of 19,000 girls called the "Meena Manch" throughout the state. The process was initiated in 2002.
Under the guidance of one facilitator/teacher, the Manch helps ensure age-appropriate enrolment, regular attendance and completion of primary education up to class five of all girls in the area.
He further said that in Nepal, Meena is used as a key resource in initiating community discussion and reflection on child health, development and gender issues, helped by the strong partnership that has been built with the media and other partners.
In Sri Lanka, Child Rights Education programmes and Mine Risk Education programmes use Meena as the role model for educating children, with a spillover effect of adult education.
Meena episodes have been dubbed into local languages and shown on TV in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Mira Mitra, the former communication officer at Unicef Bangladesh, informed us that as a brand, Meena is recognised by over 97 percent of urban children and adolescents and 81 percent of rural children and adolescents in Bangladesh. The majority of children who know Meena can cite some of the child rights' issues she stands for.
According to Brac, in 1984, the primary school enrolment rate was 58 percent in Bangladesh - girls trailing far behind boys. BBS data from 2010 to 2015 showed that the net enrolment rate of girls in primary education is 98.8 percent.
It was not just Meena. Government policy, international assistance, social mobilisation of development agencies and the availability of educational facilities also contributed in increasing the primary school enrolment of girls in Bangladesh.
Meena has taught millions of children around the world, especially girl children, that they must not be afraid of pursuing their dreams and ambitions.