Masum Momaya
Publication Date
July 29, 2010

According to this Association for Women's Rights in Development opinion article, in 2007, Norwegian theatre director Morten Traavik arrived in Cambodia to stage a beauty pageant, with funding from the government of Norway, for girls and women who had lost limbs in landmine explosions. This article analyses the project which "continues to raise 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."

With the assistance of the Cambodian Disabled People's Organization (CDPO), a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), contestants for the pageant were identified from among those already taking part in CDPO's rehabilitation programmes. As stated here, local NGOs work alongside foreign-backed and often foreign-run NGOs and development projects to support landmine amputees in the absence of government support. "In Cambodia, the NGO sector functions as a parallel state, playing the role of patron in a context with long standing patron-client relationships." Candidates were selected from each of Cambodia's provinces, made over with pageant-style clothing and makeup, and photographed for this project, described by the director as a combination of "arts and public service," in which contestants are "fellow artists in a campaign....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.'" Shortly prior to its launch, the Cambodian government banned the contest on the grounds that it was making a "mockery" of people with disabilities. The director argued that "the project [was] a guarantor of rights" and continued to run the project from Norway through online voting and using life-sized versions of contestants' photographs left behind in Cambodia.

Gender concerns on the use of beauty pageants as awareness raising tools, the suitability of publicising disabilities through individuals with disabilities and whether this publicity enhances their empowerment or agency, and the sustainability and benefits to the disabled of such awareness raising continue to surround the project. In the opinion of Chak Sopheap, formerly of the Cambodian Human Rights Commission, the aims and the commitments in the manifesto were generally achieved - the contest gave "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 contest promoted landmine elimination campaigns and respect for the rights of people with disabilities.

However, Pisey Ly, of the Women’s Network for Unity in Phnom Penh, disagreed, stating that participants were being used as tools to draw public attention and did not receive actual benefits from participation. She also criticised the conflation of beauty and empowerment. A women's rights advocate associated with pageant participants said that the contestants participated because a foreign organisation was asking them to do so, without sufficient discussion or presentation of perspectives, raising questions of transnational power dynamics that might go un-interrogated.

The article concludes with the opinion of feminist disability studies scholar Janet Price. She points to both the non-participatory nature of the project on the negative side and, on the positive side, the symbolic message of the normalisation of prosthetics. She raises the question: "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?" She expresses concern about the sexualisation of contestants in the photo style and the positioning of the images as "abstracted from the context of the participants’ lives and from the brutal violence that cost them their limbs in the first place."