Beauty Pageant Highlights Plight of Landmine Survivors

Out of the ashes of war will rise a beauty queen.

Ten women will show off their beauty and brains — and their landmine injuries — in Angola next April in a competition to win a golden prosthetic limb and the title of Miss Landmine 2008.

The project, created by Norwegian theater director Morten Traavik, is designed to raise awareness of the plight of landmine survivors. Contestants will have to demonstrate their skills and take part in an interview, though the details have yet to be finalized.

"There is no sensationalistic intentions within Miss Landmine," Traavik said. "Of course the format has been chosen because it's obviously a very media friendly forum, but it still is based very, very much on local culture, since beauty pageants are such a consistent phenomenon in Angolan contemporary culture."

Click here to see photos of some of the contestants.

The idea for Miss Landmine was born four years ago when Traavik traveled to Angola's capital, Luanda, and was struck by two things: the country's landmine problem, the remnants of more than 20 years of civil war, and Angolans' love of beauty pageants.

"We tend to associate beauty pageants with sleaze and exploitation of women and so on, but this felt very different. This was much more of a celebration, much more of a carnival-esque in many ways," he said of his first pageant experience in Angola.

Up to 80,000 people are estimated to have been injured by landmines in Angola, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

"Angola is definitely up there, probably in the top three countries in the world in terms of mine problems; Afghanistan and Cambodia being the other two," said Andrew Lyons, the vice president of Halo USA, an organization that works to remove landmines from the country. "It's a serious problem. It's probably going to take another 10 years to clear it."

Lyons said that his organization has cleared around 43,000 landmines from the countryside since arriving in 1994.

Traavik found his contestants through some of the other non-governmental organizations working on landmine issues in Angola.

The women range in age from 19 to 35 and represent their home provinces. Almost all were injured while tending fields or fleeing soldiers in the 1980s and '90s, according to their pageant biographies. Most are unemployed.

Among them are Ana Diogo, representing Benguela, who lost the lower half of her left leg in 1984 when an Italian-made anti-personnel device exploded while she was tending fields. She sells tomatoes on the street when she can find them, according to her biography.

Maria da Fatima Conceicao, a 19-year-old photographed last year while pregnant, is Miss Moxico. She lost her leg in 1999 in the fields. She "can do everything, but there is no job," and dreams of one day being a boss.

Last November, the women were flown to the Angolan capitol, where they participated in a photo shoot ahead of the pageant.

"They really had great fun," Traavik said, noting "it was something even a bit deeper: about being able to shine and being treated as someone good-looking, beautiful, flashy and funky — all the kind of things that usually are not attributed to such a group of people."

For their work, the women were paid $200 a day and given the clothing and jewelry they wore for the shoot.

"This is not like a get-rich fast scheme for the people participating," Traavik said. "This is more of a beginning of a national network in Angola for women with those kinds of backgrounds which now doesn't exist actually."

Pageants based on disabilities are nothing new, with contestants stateside participating in the Ms. Wheelchair America contest, according to Steven E. Brown, an assistant professor at the Center on Disability Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

The Miss Landmine contest was an interesting idea, Brown said.

"Whether you like a beauty pageant or not, they're figuring out a way to get some compensation," he said.

The actual Miss Landmine pageant is planned for April 4, 2008, chosen to coincide with the United Nations' International Day for Mine Awareness, Traavik said.

The international community can vote for their favorite contestant online, leaving the door open for more than one winner. Along with fame and glory, Traavik said, they'll receive a golden prosthesis fitted to their specifications.

Click here to vote for Miss Landmine 2008.

Traavik said the response has been so positive at the local level, he's already planning for a Miss Landmine Cambodia competition in late 2008 or early 2009.

"Obviously, the pageant is not a goal in itself," Traavik said. "It's a means to an end or it's a means to a beginning of something new, a new way of alerting to the landmine problem but also a new way of perceiving disabled people, especially in their own local communities."