Ryan McGovern (Vietnam)

Ryan McGovern (Association for the Empowerment of People with Disabilities - AEPD): Ryan enlisted in the US Army immediately after High School. He was stationed at Fort Bragg North Carolina, and attained the rank of Sergeant. During his four years of service, Ryan completed US Army Ranger School, the Military Free Fall Parachutist course (HALO) and was deployed to Iraq in 2003 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Following his military service, Ryan earned a BS in International Economics at Suffolk University in Boston Massachusetts. Prior to his fellowship, Ryan was pursuing a Master of Arts degree at The American University in Cairo. His interest in remnants of war was sparked by his experience in Northern Iraq, a region devastated by landmines and UXO from years of armed conflict. After his fellowship Ryan wrote: “[This experience] reminded me that all cultures are different… Certainly I gained a new perspective in a region I was very unfamiliar with.”

Advocacy gone wrong: The Miss Landmine beauty pageant

03 Jul

Generally speaking, I consider myself rather well informed on topics dealing with landmines and unexploded ordinance (UXO). I would never call myself a subject matter expert, but there are usually very few major developments within mine action that slip by me. So it surprised me when I came across this rather sensational story of a Norwegian theatre director who has organized two beauty pageants featuring female landmine survivors from Angola and Cambodia. According to the creator of the “Miss Landmine” beauty pageant, Morten Traavik, the goal of the show is to raise awareness of the landmine problem and to empower its female victims while challenging traditional notions of beauty. As you could imagine, reactions have been mixed. Some have applauded Mr. Traavik’s innovative form of advocacy while others have been appalled. (This story is several years old at this point, but has resurfaced due to a new documentary film that recently opened. Check it out here)

The debate is rather straightforward. People against the Miss Landmine pageant would likely be opposed to any type of beauty pageant. It objectifies and exploits women, and suggests that being physically attractive is the main contribution that women can make to society. Dr. Jean Chapman who was a guest writer on the blog politicalminefields.com made an interesting observation echoing the main critiques against the show. She pointed out that men with disabilities have totally different avenues to empowerment. For example there is Oscar Pistorius (The blade runner), who is known as the fastest man without legs. He’s a double amputee from South Africa, who with the aid of carbon fiber prosthetics can run nearly as fast as world class Olympic sprinters. She cites a slew of other athletic events mostly catering towards men with disabilities that provide a healthy and inspiring way to empower persons with disabilities. Naturally she scoffs at Mr. Traavik’s beauty pageant, asking the question, “Is the only option for women amputees their objectification?” Furthermore, there are imperialist undertones within the show, which involves a privileged rich European male coming to developing nations and propagating what he considers empowerment, advocacy, and beauty.

Promotional photo for Miss Landmine Angloa Pageant

Promotional photo for Miss Landmine Angloa Pageant

Judging from the comments that most people leave on blogs and news sites about this topic, supporters of the project seem generally inspired by the courage of the landmine survivors, generally agreeing with the pageant’s motto, “Everyone deserves to be beautiful”. Other supporters simply don’t see the harm in having such a pageant. After all, nobody gets hurt, the women all supposedly volunteer for the event, and the mine action sector gains the attention of the international media. Also the winner gets a cash prize and is fitted for a state of the art prosthetic limb.

I myself had mixed feelings about the Miss Landmine pageant, but I eventually came to the conclusion that this is a terrible idea, although not for the reasons stated earlier.

Certain topics within international development and humanitarian action go in and out of vogue, leaving the public’s consciousness when something more chic comes along. We the public, have in general, very short attention spans. So every once in a while, something dramatic and sensational is exactly what a cause needs to recapture the world’s attention. The Miss Landmine pageant almost fits this model, except I’m very skeptical about the supposed awareness it actually raised. While many stories in the media that reported on the show paid some lip service to the landmine problem, it was mostly concerned with the controversies involved with the pageant and its creator Mr. Traavik. The terms Bizarre and Circus were probably the most common words used by writers to describe the pageant, which isn’t something I would deem beneficial when dealing with landmine and UXO survivors. It indeed grabbed the spotlight for a short while, but mostly the light was cast on the pageant organizer Mr. Traavik, which I suspect was the entire point all along for him. While I believe the pageant ultimately failed in its stated goal of advocacy and empowerment, I’m more perturbed for a different reason.

Participants in the Miss Landmine Cambodia pageant

Participants in the Miss Landmine Cambodia pageant

This show was a colossal waste of resources. The first pageant, Miss Landmine Angola in 2008 was sponsored by the US government as well as other development organizations. The 2009 show, Miss Landmine Cambodia which was eventually held in Norway, received funding from the Norwegian government and other donors. I can only speculate as to how much it costs to run a beauty pageant like this, but I imagine it wasn’t cheap since it required funding from a number of different government and non-government organizations. The final prize for the 2009 show winner was a custom prosthetic limb. I have to wonder, that instead of wasting money on a frivolous beauty pageant so a small elite group of people can pat themselves on the back, if all of the 20 participants could have been fitted with prosthetic limbs. I imagine they would choose this rather than the feeling of empowerment they gain from parading around in evening gowns and swimwear. This money could have been put to good use in so many other ways. Even if it didn’t go to landmine survivor assistance, I can think of a million different worthy causes that could have made a huge difference with just a fraction of the funds.

In the end, I can think of one benefit from the Miss Landmine pageant experiment. While it didn’t necessarily raise meaningful awareness of the landmine and UXO problem, it did show some weakness in worldwide survivor assistance, one of the main tenets of the ICBL’s Ottawa treaty. If it takes something like a beauty pageant to get the world’s attention, then clearly not enough is being accomplished.

Posted By Ryan McGovern (Vietnam)

Posted Jul 3rd, 2011


  • Nima Amini

    July 4, 2011


    Very interesting stuff Ryan. I am completely on board with you in that the resources required to run this pageant could be allocated more beneficially. However I don’t fully agree with the points made by Dr. Chapman. It’s great that a man like Oscar Pistorius is able to display his incredible talent despite his physical limitations. However, i think the important issue here is more that a double amputee like Mr. Pistorius has the opportunity to display his ability rather than the nature of the ability itself. People should be afforded the opportunity to show their talents irrespective of their physical limitations, and these women are being given the opportunity to show their beauty. I really don’t believe this is a gender issue. It’s not as if these women are capable of running at speeds comparable to world-class sprinters (to my knowledge), but are being forced to model instead because they are women. They are simply being given the opportunity to display a talent (their beauty), as every person should.

  • Mariya

    July 4, 2011


    Dear Ryan, this is a great post and I love how it brings up a bunch of different issues. I once asked a friend who was participating in Miss America beauty pageants why she was doing it. She said it was about finding the confidence to walk in your swimsuit in front of thousands of people and a TV camera and look beautiful and self-assured. I admired her courage to do so, but I still felt she could use that in other undertakings that brought more meaning to her life. And with beauty pageants, it always comes down to gender because as much as there is “Mr America” or “Mr Universe,” they never get as much attention, publicity or money as the women’s pageants do. I’d much rather watch men in swimsuits doing the catwalk, but they never seem to show that on national TV. Not only is it exploitation of women, but it forces on us this wrong image of the unnatural “perfect beautiful woman’s body” complemented by plastic surgery, beauty products and make-up, and body-shaping that has nothing to do with what’s truly healthy for a woman.

    Traavik didn’t do a pageant for men either. And I have the feeling that being beautiful or not is probably one of the last concerns these women have, given that Angola and Cambodia have respectively 40% and 31% of their populations below the poverty line. “Empowerment through beauty” or what my friend was defining as “courage” does not really empower women in poor societies. What does is education, skills-training and funding, which exactly what AEPD does. “Miss Landmine” is no more than a perversion with the purpose of entertaining a bored rich Norwegian who ran out of theater ideas for his bored Norwegian audience.

  • Joan Mansour

    July 4, 2011


    Another interesting post, Ryan. I am not a fan of beauty pageants and I agree that the money could have been better spent. I think that the pageant is a “one trick pony” that will garner short term attention because it is unique. I am really enjoying your blog and you always raise thought provoking points. Keep up the good work!

  • Karen

    July 4, 2011


    I think if these women, for whatever reasons they have, want to enter this Miss Landmine competition, let them. Who is anyone to say no? They are certainly still beautiful, and if the money to run the show seems extravagant, there is certainly other things that are comparable that are way more shallow. All good things to those women!!!

  • Elaine

    July 5, 2011


    again Ryan a nicely written piece. you certainly covered the argument from all sides and while I generally don’t care either way about beauty pageants I agree that funds could be better spent in this instance.

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