x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A beauty pageant with a difference

Cambodia is holding a beauty pageant for victims of landmines left over from its civil war.

After losing a leg to a landmine, Song Kosal became involved in the campaign to ban the weapons.
After losing a leg to a landmine, Song Kosal became involved in the campaign to ban the weapons.

PHNOM PENH // Song Kosal's life has so far taken her from the rice paddies of rural Cambodia, where she lost a leg to a landmine at the age of five, to the White House to present a petition urging the US to sign a treaty banning landmines. On Friday she will embark on yet another journey when she takes part in the Miss Landmine competition, a beauty pageant for victims of landmines. Ms Kosal will be vying for the title along with 20 other women who have lost limbs to landmines left over from Cambodia's civil war. The winner will be crowned in a ceremony in December and will receive a custom-made prosthetic limb.

Although she already has a prosthetic leg, it does not fit properly and it is painful to use, so she walks with a crutch instead. While a prosthetic leg designed especially for her would make walking much easier, the prize is not her reason for participating in the contest. "I want to try to get people to pay attention to women with disabilities and to not discriminate. People with disabilities can do anything," she said. "And if we do this project we can raise the issue of the ban [on landmines]."

Miss Landmine is the brainchild of Morten Traavik, a Norwegian actor and theatre director. He launched the first pageant last year in Angola, which is one of the three most heavily mined countries in the world, along with Cambodia and Afghanistan. Mr Traavik was staying at the family home of his then girlfriend in Angola's capital, Luanda, in 2003, just one year after the end of the country's civil war.

"There was still a very palpable sense of a state of emergency," he said. The streets were strewn with garbage, buildings were pockmarked with bullet holes, and of course there were thousands of amputees, victims of landmines that peppered the countryside. During his visit, Mr Traavik got to know some of the neighbourhood children and they asked him to be a judge at a contest they were organising called Miss "Beco", meaning Miss Backstreet.

"It was such a wonderful event," Mr Traavik recalled. "A narrow back alley was the catwalk. The women were of all shapes, sizes, nuances of brown and black. It was a very inclusive event. It made me see how uncomplicated it can be, a playful celebration of life and beauty." The experience stuck with him and before long Mr Traavik came up with the idea of organising a similar event to raise awareness about landmines, which are currently banned by 156 countries but continue to kill and maim decades after the end of armed conflicts. His idea was met with scepticism if not outright disgust by many of the international organisations he approached for funding.

"Some people have a purely gut reaction that all beauty pageants are bad no matter if they have a higher purpose," said Mr Traavik, who said many people he talked to could not get past the concept of a pageant as "sleazy old men voting for young dancing babes in bathing suits". But the Angolan government and local community groups gave their support and after applying to the Norwegian Arts Council a few times he finally received a grant.

The Cambodian government, however, yesterday urged the cancellation of the event, Agence France-Presse reported. In a letter to organisers, the ministry of social affairs said: "The ministry asks the people who organise this contest to stop this action ? for protecting ? the honour and dignity of people with disabilities." While Miss Landmine is a far cry from the average pageant, it does follow the traditional aesthetic of beauty contests. The competition will kick off with the launch of a photo exhibit and a glossy magazine featuring contestants photographed against backdrops of beaches and Cambodia's famed ancient temples. People throughout the world can cast votes online for their favourite candidate at www.miss-landmine.org/cambodia. Those votes will be taken into account by judges who will decide the winner at the December event, which will feature contestants on a catwalk in gowns and a brief interview conducted by an MC.

According to the Miss Landmine magazine, Ms Kosal lost her leg to a Gyata 64 anti-personnel mine, which was manufactured in Hungary and sold for about US$15 (Dh55). Ms Kosal said she could not remember the incident, but her mother, who was working in a rice paddy at the time, told her that she was collecting firewood when she stepped on the mine. Her story is common in Cambodia, which is littered with mines left behind after a two-decade long war between government troops backed by Vietnam and Khmer Rouge rebels.

"I am very angry at these people who put landmines there," said Ms Kosal. "But I am happy that I have the chance to join the campaign to challenge countries like the US that have not signed the treaty." The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty has yet to be signed by 37 countries, including the UAE. Ms Kosal is a youth ambassador for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a global advocacy network. In 2001, she travelled to Washington, DC, to present a petition containing 263,000 signatures to Colin Powell, who was serving as the secretary of state in the administration of George W Bush.

"I liked him, the way he spoke, the way he acted," she said, but added that Mr Powell said the US would sign the treaty, which it has not done. "I was upset that he promised me, then he forgot what he said to me." Mr Traavik noted that the US, along with China and Russia, are major producers of weapons including landmines, and none of them have signed the treaty, also known as the Ottawa Accord. According to Landmine Monitor, a civil society group that tracks progress made in eliminating landmines, those three countries have by far the biggest stockpiles, with about 145 million antipersonnel mines between them.

"It's not a coincidence that these countries unwilling to sign the Ottawa Accord are also the biggest weapons producers," he said. "Of course there is a powerful arms industry and a powerful arms lobby that does not want to lose money." That is why it is important to keep pressuring such countries by bringing attention to the issue in any way possible, he said, even if it means challenging commonly held assumptions about the evils of beauty pageants.

jferrie@thenational.ae