Dolled-up landmine survivors competing in a beauty pageant to win prosthetic limbs.
It is a jarring—and some might say inappropriate—image, but to organizers of the Miss Landmine competition—the second ever of which is being planned for Cambodia in 2009—that’s the whole point.
“I believe in counterpoint, in juxtaposing two seemingly incompatible things to achieve a feeling, a tension and ambivalence,” said Morten Traavik, the 36-year-old Norwegian theater director who initially came up with idea and successfully executed the first Miss Landmine competition earlier this month in Angola.
Still, while Traavik admits to the apparent incongruity of amputees taking to the catwalk, he is quick to say that he is “not courting controversy for controversy’s own sake.”
“It’s about time that landmine survivors get a beauty pageant as well,” he said, but “the pageant isn’t an end in itself…. [The idea] is to highlight a global problem that transcends boundaries and cultural differences.”
Several organizations have already expressed shock and disgust at the potential of the pageant in Cambodia—where a run-of-the-mill Miss Cambodia beauty contest in 2006 was dubbed anti-Cambodian by officials.
But Traavik said that, based on the overwhelmingly positive feedback from the Angola competition, which hundreds attended and where the first lady of Angola personally crowned the winner, he feels confident that the competition’s uplifting effect will translate to Cambodia.
He said efforts would be made to adapt the contest to a Cambodian context, which would probably entail most contestants posing in traditional formal wear. This would be in contrast to photos from the Angola pageant, which can be viewed on the event’s official Web site, that show women, most of whom are visibly missing limbs, posing in bikinis on the beach and wearing tight-fitting dresses along the pool at fancy hotels.
“Bikinis are an entirely voluntary option,” he said.
Traavik said there will be one contestant representing each Cambodian province, and that they will take part in high-style fashion photo shoots at various places around the country.
“These could range from a luxury hotel in Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat,” he said, adding that the pictures are then made into a glossy fashion magazine that includes details about the contestants as well as the landmines that affected them.
The contest will hopefully culminate with a live pageant where winners will receive custom-made prostheses from Norway, he said.
Cambodia, alongside Angola and Afghanistan, is the country most affected by landmines, which prompted Traavik to select it for Miss Landmine’s second stop. And while holding the competition here is not a done deal, both the Cambodia Mine Action Authority and the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization have issued official letters of endorsement—copies of which were obtained Tuesday.
“We’re working on making it happen,” Traavik said, adding that he “would never consider carrying through contrary to the wishes of the national authorities,” but that he had only received positive reactions so far.
Ngin Saorath, CDPO executive director, said Tuesday by telephone that he fully supports the competition as a way to build awareness and provide disabled women with the opportunities that were taken from them when they became victims of mines.
“Women with disabilities have lost face and do not come out. This can empower them to show their face,” he said. “They feel they cannot compete with beauty. It gives them what they lost in the past.”
He said that CDPO has already traveled to four provinces in an attempt to recruit contestants, most of whom are hesitant at first but ultimately very excited about the idea.
“At first they felt shy, but then they see it as a good opportunity,” he said.
“They say, ‘Wow, how can I participate in a beauty contest because I am disabled?’…but we explain that this is a way to overcome discrimination and then they feel happy,” he said.
Khem Sophoan, director general of the Cambodia Mine Action Center, said he wholeheartedly endorses the idea as one that can help garner much-needed funds.
“The majority of donor countries have reduced funds for landmine clearance…. And I am hopeful and believe this contest will draw the attention of donors,” he said.
Since 1979, Khem Sophoan said, there have been roughly 60,000 landmine victims in Cambodia—about 10,000 of whom have died. In 2007, Cambodia saw 351 victims of landmine and unexploded ordnance, down from 450 in 2006 and an average of 850 each year between 2000 and 2005, he said.
CMAA authorities could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Not everyone welcomes the notion of the pageant, and the controversy that may ultimately fuel its spotlight has already begun.
Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, said she doesn’t think the beauty contest is appropriate.
“The idea to raise awareness is very good,” she said, “but maybe there is another way…. It will not be a beauty contest, it will be a contest of suffering,” she said.
“It is very painful for us to see these women without their legs. I really don’t know what the public will make of it.”
Chris Minko, secretary general of Cambodian National Volleyball League (Disabled), said he disapproves of the concept.
“I have no time for beauty pageants. I think they degrade women across the board. I do not see any difference between able-bodied people and disabled people,” he said. “I think there are more creative ways to promote the abilities of landmine survivors,” he added.
He said it took CNVLD a long time to find a sport that disabled females felt comfortable playing, and that it was ultimately determined they felt the most comfortable in wheelchair sports in which the issue of sexuality was a diminished factor—as opposed to the Miss Landmine competition which he said “uses sex to exploit the issue.”
To those shying away from what they might consider a freak show, Traavik would like to say: “Open your mind.”
In Angola, he said, “[i]t was very clear that the women taking part were really, really enjoying doing so and really, really appreciated finally being looked at as not too different from any other woman – not being looked at with pity and condescension, but being looked at as glamorous and sexy.”