December 16, 2007

Miss Landmine Angola 2008

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"Ana Diogo stands on a beach lit with the col-ours of sunset in Luanda, the capital of Angola, wearing a simple white dress and bracelets on both wrists.

Her right foot is buried in the warm sand. What is left of her left leg, which she lost in an explosion in 1984 while tending fields, is hidden beneath her knee-length skirt. Leaning on a cane and with her head tilted left, she poses for the camera with a shy smile and a "Miss Landmine" sash.

The beauty pageant is the work of Morten Traavik, a Norwegian theatre and film director who sees it as a way of empowering disabled African women and delivering some much-needed attention to the land mine issue. Ten Angolan women are competing in the pageant for the grand prize: a leg prosthesis direct from Norway.

The controversial project is raising the ire of some activists and international aid agencies, who criticize the artist's depiction of African women as sensationalist and even exploitative.

The images are certainly jarring. The women are shown in typical fashion-industry poses -- lounging poolside, smiling on beaches, posed in chairs -- but all are missing legs, or parts of legs, or legs injured in land mine explosions.

The photographs now appear in the project's Miss Landmine magazine and are also travelling through Europe as an exhibition. Visitors to www.miss-landmine.org are encouraged to learn about the contestants and vote for their favourite. Each woman's profile contains her age, favourite colour and dream job (Ms. Diogo's: "Anything"). They also feature details of the women's American Apparel dresses and the types of land mines present in Angola, along with the cost of both. More than 2,000 online ballots have already been cast. Two of the land mine survivors will ultimately be crowned: A people's favourite and another selected by a jury in Luanda on April 4, the United Nations' Inter-national Mine Awareness Day..."

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It so happens that landmines are an issue that I've always felt very strongly about; they are the very essence of terrorism, in that they strike civilian targets and are used to create a sense of dread and fear that linger in an area long after a war has ended. Same goes for cluster bombs, which the US still manufactures, sells, and uses. These weapons are specifically made to maim insted of kill, to slow advancing troops and overwhelm the enemy's medical resources. Unfortunately the price is mainly paid by civilians after the fact, as they attempt to resume their lives in former war-zones where cluster bomblets are left scattered in trees and mixed in debris, just out of plain sight.

Morten Traavik's beauty pageant may be a more sensational, cynical approach to raising awareness on this matter, but I applaud the effort and think it will make a greater impact on Americans and Europeans, who may prefer a gut-wrenching ironic twist to the gut-wrenching photos of victims that populate the usual anti-mine campaigns and make one want to just look away.

Which contestant will you vote for?

See also: Adopt-a-minefield.

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