Saturday, 11 October 2008

Landmine victims become survivors at Cambodia's Miss Landmine contest

26-year-old Marina Restino Manuel, winner of the international internet vote. (Photo: Miss Landmine)

Media Global
By Shipra Prakash

10 October 2008 [MEDIAGLOBAL]: Between 1975 and 1979 in Cambodia, exhaustion, starvation, torture and execution perpetrated by the radical communist Khmer Rouge – under the leadership of Pol Pot – resulted in a historically high death toll. According to the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University, an estimated 1.7 million died during this period. Today, it is one of the poorest countries in the world. And to compound the suffering, the issue of landmines is still an issue.

Cambodia “is one of the most heavily mined and unexploded ordinance-contaminated country in the world,” says the Mines Advisory Group. It certainly is: more than a staggering 25,000 amputees reside in Cambodia, according to the Halo Trust.

Although these civilians are “victims,” Morten Traavik, Founder of the Miss Landmine Survivor contest and a Norwegian theater director, tries to give them agency by turning them into “survivors.” He does this through a Miss Landmine Survivor contest. And so, in 2008, the first such contest was held in Angola, which, like Cambodia, suffers from landmines. A second one is due to be held next year in Cambodia.

The idea for a Miss Landmine contest came to Traavik in 2003, when he visited Luanda, in Angola, with his girlfriend. There, he saw for himself the suffering landmines cause to the nation’s people. “The civil war had ended a year back. There was garbage on the street, and there were amputees among the population,” he said during an interview with MediaGlobali.

But he also witnessed something else: the Angolan passion for beauty pageants. When he was asked by local children to judge a ‘Miss Backstreet’ contest, he had a glimpse of this passion. He decided to put his professional background to use creating a Miss Landmine contest. “I had an ambition to use my craft, my art, to intervene in one outside reality,” he said.

But besides expertise, Traavik needed financial backing. The funding came from a diverse set of sources. The European Union, Norway’s Arts council, and the Angolan Government’s de-mining commission are among the list of financial contributors.

The contest aims to encourage disability pride and empowerment. In the Angola contest, contestants came with silver tiaras and stylish gowns; they posed for the camera proudly despite their injury. When the time came to judge the contestants, a somewhat democratic process followed.

“In Angola, there were two winners. One was chosen by the jury and the other through a web vote,” Traavik said. One only had to go to the Miss Landmine website to vote. A phenomenal number of people did so. “Around 10,000 votes were cast through our website,” Traavik said.

This shows that the Miss Landmine Survivor contest achieves something else besides disability pride and empowerment: local and international awareness of landmines. A Miss Landmine magazine helps to further these efforts. “It features contestants in a glossy fashion,” Traavik explained. “In Cambodia, there will be a Miss Landmine magazine issue number two. Issue number one was the Angolan issue.” Furthermore, four documentaries on the contest have been made.

The Miss Landmine Survivor contest in 2009 will be made for Cambodians, so only victims who are either Cambodian or living in Cambodia would be eligible to enter, said Traavik. While 18 contestants vied for the prize in Angola, it will be 16 in Cambodia. “One representative from each province will be selected, and Cambodia has 16 provinces,” Traavik observed – hence 16 contestants.

As the Miss Landmine Survivor contest in Cambodia approaches, Traavik hopes that awareness will compel those in government to act more forcefully to take more forceful measures in eradicating landmines.

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