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.
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.
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