Take Five: Thomas & Friends™ bring gender equality to pre-schoolers


Recently, the United Nations and Mattel, Inc. announced a collaboration to incorporate five of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into the storylines of the animated children’s television series Thomas & Friends™, to be aired in over 110 countries in 33 languages. In addition, the new series of Thomas & Friends™ will include the launch of a new African female character called Nia (pronounced “Nee-Yah”) who will take a lead role in the new series. UN Women is supporting this initiative and Tolulope Lewis-Tamoka, Africa Programme Adviser, provided guidance to the production team for the development of Nia’s character. Read the full press release>>

In this interview, Ms. Lewis-Tamoka explains what Nia is expected to portray and why it is important to engage young people in learning about the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Tolulope Lewis-Tamoka, UN Women Africa Programme Adviser. Photo credit: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Tolulope Lewis-Tamoka, UN Women Africa Programme Adviser. Photo credit: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Why is it important to engage young people to learn about the Sustainable Development Goals?

It’s extremely important to engage young people about the Sustainable Development Goals, because they are going to become future global citizens; they will be implementing and experiencing the SDGs in 2030. This is an opportune moment to create global citizens who are aware of the issues. The collaboration with Mattel, Inc. on Thomas & Friends enables young people to engage with these issues from an early age. 

It is also important for the families watching, because we’re trying to ensure that both young and old respond to the SDGs and understand what it means to leave no one behind. Everyone has a role in achieving the goals—particularly the gender equality goal. That’s why the Thomas & Friends initiative is so important for us in Africa, because it shows a young empowered female engine. For those not familiar with the show, Thomas & Friends focuses on the adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine and his train friends. Every episode ends with a life lesson. What young and old see on screen in such a popular series will help in changing the narrative and pushing a new understanding of diversity, universality and gender equality in the world. 

Why were the five goals (Goal 4 on Quality Education, Goal 5 on Gender Equality, Goal 11 on Sustainable Cities and Communities, Goal 12 on Responsible Consumption and Production, and Goal 15 Life on Land) specifically selected to be incorporated into the storylines of Thomas & Friends? What was your role in this project?

The Thomas & Friends crew wanted to embrace SDGs and work with the UN. In our discussions, the UNhelped to identify which goals would work in the series and be easiest for young children to understand. Gender equality is one goal that came up very early on. Issues that UN Women works on, such as women and girls’ leadership and political participation, women’s economic empowerment and ending discrimination and violence, resonated with the production team for the new character they were planning to create in the revamped series. But we had to convey the issues embodied by the SDGs in a way that they resonated with a three-year-old viewer. 

My role included helping with the creation of Nia’s character, where we deliberately showed this female engine having equal abilities as the male engines, and being able to support other engines to carry out tasks. Nia shows young viewers that girls can do just as well as boys. Girls and boys all face challenges regardless of their gender or where they come from. They all have dreams and aspirations and they all want to fulfil their potential. We also wanted to convey through the character that Africa is not one country, but a continent made of many countries with different experiences and varying levels of development. 

The animated series is popular among pre-school aged children. Why was this age group chosen and how will the SDGs manifest on screen?

Children form ideas and learn stereotypes very early. A lot of this is learned by seeing what’s around them. So, reaching them through a popular animated series is a good strategy. 

It is important to put the messages in a language that children will understand. Some episodes of Thomas & Friends will include messages where we can incorporate the SDGs more explicitly. But throughout the series, through visuals and words, ideas are conveyed about specific issues. For example, the characters show how people can face challenges because of a disaster, and teaches children to be helpful. 

How does the new Thomas and Friends character Nia embody UN Women’s mission statement and the SDGs? Do you personally identify with Nia?

Nia resonates the leave no one behind concept that’s at the core of the Sustainable Development Goals. She represents the role of the girl working side by side with the boy; creating these relationships that are necessary to succeed. She represents diversity, working with people from different regions and helping to grow their potential. Nia embodies UN Women’s mission statement as she portrays the aspirations of the SDGs, specifically, the goal on gender equality and the empowerment of women, which is directly related to themes present throughout the show, like education and health. 

What are some of the gender equality issues that we must start engaging children about, and how do they relate to the Sustainable Development Goals?

We must engage young children about issues of discrimination, so that they reject discrimination based on race, gender, sex, ethnicity or any other factor, because stereotypes that fuel these discriminations form early on. A series like Thomas & Friends, and characters like Nia, can open children to the ideas that others may look different from them or speak differently, but everyone is equally valued and have a role to play. 

By ending stereotypes early on, we present children with a clean slate and new norms, where they see things without the filter of inequality. Without ending discrimination and stereotypes, we cannot change the attitudes and behaviours that ultimately drive inequality between the genders all over the world. And this inequality stands in the way of fulfilling the vision of the Sustainable Development Goals.