This article is cross-posted at AWID.org.
A Pageant for Amputees
In 2007, with funding from the government of Norway, Norwegian theater director Morten Traavik arrived in Cambodia with a goal: staging a beauty pageant for girls and women from all over the country who had lost limbs in landmine explosions. With the assistance of the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization (CDPO), a local NGO, twenty prospective participants were identified among those already taking part in CDPO’s rehabilitation programs. Contestants were selected from each of Cambodia’s provinces, made over with pageant-style clothing and makeup, photographed and entered in a contest to select ‘Miss Landmine Cambodia.’ The winner would receive a custom-made prosthetic limb and some cash.
Billing the project as a combination of “arts and public service,” in which contestants are “fellow artists in a campaign,” Traavik had already staged a similar pageant in landmine-ridden Angola and wanted to carry over “the need for and joy of being seen, appreciated [and] taken seriously” in the Cambodian context .
Supporting People with Disabilities
Estimates of the number of people in Cambodia who have lost limbs in landmine explosions vary, with some sources, including the BBC, reporting that at least 40,000 people are chon pika, or amputees. Making basic life tasks accessible, creating suitable, non-exploitative work opportunities and integrating people with disabilities in Cambodia – much like everywhere else in the world – remains a formidable task.
Social services, let alone advocacy for human rights, for those disabled by landmine explosions are challenges in this country where the government is widely acknowledged as corrupt, poor and incapable of administering and providing for basic needs of the majority of its people – and is handicapped on an ongoing basis by geopolitical and economic forces. Instead, foreign-backed and often foreign-run NGOs and development projects – some similar to Traavik’s in their single-project approach and others with a long, complex history in Cambodia – fill in many of the gaps. Local NGOs work alongside them, although often still primarily resourced and influenced by foreign money.
Having foreign funding and administration is not necessarily bad, unless it deprives local people of opportunities to shape and participate in the very programs and projects that are supposed to help them. In Cambodia, the NGO sector functions as a parallel state, playing the role of patron in a context with longstanding patron-client relationships. According to Rosanna Barbero, who has worked on development issues in Cambodia for more than two decades, most Cambodian citizens are well accustomed to this international development machinery and often are un-phased in the presence of another new project, regardless of how sensible or outrageous it seems.
Pageant: Pride or Mockery?
Miss Landmine Cambodia was – and still is – the subject of much controversy, which includes government disapproval.
As part of the pageant’s set-up, a manifesto was created by pageant organizers, including commitments to ‘female pride and empowerment,’ ‘disabled pride and empowerment (including questioning established concepts of physical perfection),’ ‘raising awareness about landmines locally and globally,’ ‘challenging old and ingrown concepts of cultural cooperation,’ and ‘replacing the passive term ‘victim’ with ‘survivor.’’
Days before its scheduled launch in August 2009, the Cambodian government banned the contest on the grounds that it was making a “mockery” of people with disabilities. In a letter addressed to Traavik, government signatories, including the Prime Minister, asked “the people who organize this contest to stop this action … for protecting the honor and dignity of people with disabilities.” Although organizations for persons with disabilities in Cambodia expressed discomfort commenting on this situation, it is widely understood that the government itself does very little to provide basic social services for people with disabilities, much less affirm, protect and realize their rights.
Moreover, women’s rights advocates are widely cautious of government leaders’ recent puritanical turn, in which women’s concerns are heard only to the extent that they are willing to position themselves as victims in need of rescue.
Traavik, though, positioned the project as a guarantor of rights in his response to the government ban: “While we are certainly aware that some people will take issue over the project’s choice of means to raise awareness about global landmine contamination and the position and identity of landmine survivors, we have always welcomed open discussion… about the many ethical questions and dilemmas the… project inevitably raises. We trust that even those who disagree with Miss Landmine’s chosen aesthetics and/or messages, can nevertheless agree that it is a fundamental human right to be able to express those messages freely” . But are contestants expressing their messages or those handed to them by pageant organizers?
The pageant also raises further questions. For example, aren’t all beauty pageants inherently sexist? Does this particular pageant create a troublesome gaze in which audiences leer at Cambodian women without limbs? Is this yet another case of a privileged man from the North ‘saving’ poor, disabled women from the South?
Moreover, while the project may temporarily raise awareness about landmines, does it actually contribute to eradication? And what about the contestants who don’t win and therefore don’t receive prosthetics? Are there adequate educational and income-generating opportunities for them?
After some unsuccessful appeals and in the face of strong criticism, Traavik and his team left Cambodia but continued the pageant in Norway, where the local Cambodian community voted on life-size versions of contestants’ photographs and Facebook ‘friends’ of the pageant voted online. After the voting concluded on December 3 2009, International Disability Day, Traavik traveled back to Cambodia in stealth to give the winner – 19 year old high school student Dos Sopheap from Battambang province – a prosthetic leg and USD$1000.
Questions of Empowerment
Even after its conclusion, the pageant continues to raise numerous questions about what it means for a foreign project to offer ‘freedom’ and ‘opportunity’ to women with disabilities in Cambodia and stoke debates about the sexualization of women with disabilities from the global South.
Traavik asserts that he and his colleagues were seeking to reclaim the notion of a pageant and normalize disability. On the Miss Landmine website, he wrote that “very few Khmer understand why there are Western “feminists” being outraged and concerned on their behalf for taking part in Miss Landmine.” He further argued that the pageant derives legitimacy as “working within the local culture with a minimum of outside assistance gives us a far more grounded moral legitimacy that if this would just have been another “here’s your money/goat/new village well, good luck with it” aid project.” Yet is this simply yet another irresponsible aid project?
Advocates in Cambodia are divided on whether the pageant helped or harmed women.
Chak Sopheap, formerly of the Cambodian Human Rights Commission believes that Traavik’s aims and the commitments in the manifesto were generally achieved. In a conversation with AWID, she said that the contest gives a platform to women with disabilities who have been traumatized and silenced and that, as long as women are not forced to join the contest, they have every right to express themselves in this way.
She also said that the positive light in which contestants are presented through the pageant is not the mockery of people with disabilities in Cambodia that the government claimed. And, she said, the contest will promote the landmine elimination campaigns and respect for the rights of people with disabilities.
Pisey Ly of the Women’s Network for Unity in Phnom Penh disagreed. Speaking with AWID, she explained that the contestants were used as tools to draw public attention to the issue but did not receive actual benefits from their participation. “Aside from being sat for make up, holding flowers, smiling uncomfortably and preparing themselves for the photographers’ gaze and press interviews,” she said, “the participants did not receive the kind of education, health care, jobs, social supports and legal protection from discrimination to make their lives better.” Instead, she remarked, their beauty was “used” and claimed as “empowerment.” For her, empowerment would not be possible without local participation in the design of and ownership over the program.
Another women’s rights advocate, who worked directly with the pageant participants and asked to remain anonymous, said that the girls went along with it because a foreign organization asked them to do so – reiterating women’s rights advocates concerns that this is yet another project in which transnational power dynamics go un-interrogated. She reported that the pageant’s organizers claimed that they wanted to show the world that girls without limbs are still beautiful and have survived the awful things that have happened to them. The girls thought foreigners would not discriminate against “girls like them” and thus trusted them with their best interests.
This anonymous source also remarked that there was no training or any sessions that prepared the girls to understand what was happening and what it meant, apart from when some local advocates like herself helped the foreigners translate to the girls what they wanted them to do and why.
Feminist disability studies scholar Janet Price is also concerned about the non-participatory nature of the project but also cautions us not to dismiss the pageant’s symbolic messages related to disability. On one hand, she says, “no attempt is made to hide lost limbs in the photographs, and there is a really positive normalization of prosthetics, which is good in the sense that we all live prosthetisized lives in some shape or form; for example, computers and mobile phones enable our communication and mobility but are rarely seen as prosthetics.”
“But,” she continues, “does it also affirm that prosthetics or expensive shiny technologies from the North – rather than systemic public policy reform to transform the environment for people with disabilities – is the answer?”
Furthermore, Price adds that some of the images, while artistic and provocative, are abstracted from the context of the participants’ lives and from the brutal violence that cost them their limbs in the first place. Some images, in fact, struck her as downright disturbing, including one where a young woman holds a toy gun, another in which a young girl holds a larger prosthetic leg, as if her life dream and yet another of a prosthetic leg dressed up as a beauty queen itself.
Additionally, Price raises concern that sexualization of the contestants in the photographs continues the steady gaze that foreigners already hold on women in the Global South – without any care or concern given to their sexuality, sexual desires or sexual rights – either through the process of the staging pageant or in the representative images that emerged from it. And this is particularly concerning as those who are subject to gaze are visibly disabled.
In the end, the project is neither simply “arts and public service” nor one of the business-as-usual projects in Cambodia’s development machinery.
The author would like to thank Dr. Janet Price, Devi Leiper from the Global Fund for Women and her AWID colleagues Rosanna Barbero and Sanushka Mudaliar for their support with this article.