Cambodia's government says the contest makes fun of the disabled. The founder says he's only trying to humanize them.
by Elissa Cooper
The Cambodian government last week banned the Miss Landmine beauty pageant, slated for Friday in the capital city of Phnom Penh.
Government officials initially supported the contest but changed their view, saying the contest would damage “the dignity and honor of people with disabilities." Besides the view that beauty pageants inherently objectify their participants, many people believe Miss Landmine mocks the disabled. (The contest logo is a one-legged female outline sporting a crown with a danger sign in the background.) In Miss Landmine Angola 2008, women took turns walking and posing on the catwalk, many of them supported by crutches.
Norwegian film director Morten Traavik launched Miss Landmine after a 2003 visit to the country of Angola in southern Africa. Civil war had recently concluded, and many landmines remained in the ground, causing injuries. When some children asked him to judge their own beauty pageant held in an alley, Traavik combined the idea of a pageant with raising awareness and support for landmine victims — or survivors, as the Miss Landmine manifesto prefers to call them.
UNICEF ranks Cambodia as the third most landmined country in the world. An estimated 4 to 6 million landmines remain in the ground 30 years after the military conflict between Cambodia’s former Communist regime, Khmer Rouge, and Vietnam. According to the Halo Trust, Cambodia is home to an estimated 25,000 amputees.
In both Angola and Cambodia, more women applied to participate than the organization could handle. Cambodia’s contestants are in various stages of life, ranging in age from 18 to 48, and including wives, widows, and mothers. In addition to vying for a custom-made prosthetic leg and other prizes, contestants are photographed wearing designer dresses and jewelry. The pictures are aesthetically tasteful and featured in art exhibits.
It helps, too, that the women themselves want to participate in Miss Landmine. Cambodian contestant Song Kosal, 24, told The Phnom Penh Post, “Even though we are disabled, we also have the right to be beautiful, to participate in society's activities, and to have equal rights with non-disabled people.”
Traavik finds in Miss Landmine a “. . . need for and joy of being seen, appreciated, taken seriously and — something so simple — not being patronized by neither bigoted neighbors nor well-meaning aid workers.”
But Lim Mony, an officer with the Cambodian human rights group Adhoc, sees the contest itself as inherently patronizing. "The [women] are disabled, but being taken to participate in a contest like that — it's not right. It is as if they are being made fun of," she told The Phnom Penh Post.
People can still vote for Miss Landmine Cambodia online, and Traavik once spoke of holding a global Miss Landmine pageant in 2015. Will people support it? Should they?