What's the impact towards women's empowerment? -The Asian Age

Donah Mbabazi

Beauty contests have always been a subject of controversy. Some see them as platforms used to demean women by portraying them as 'sex objects'. Others are of the view that beauty pageants pose a challenge to women as they subject themselves to judgment based on their physical appearance. It is with such reproaches that arguments continuously transpired, latest being the recently concluded Miss Rwanda beauty pageant. But looking deeper, could there be more to these pageants? Is there a prospect that beauty contests could actually have a role to play in empowering women?

Didas Gakire, a gender activist, believes these pageants have a serious role to play in empowering women. Gakire says a platform as big as Miss Rwanda avails young girls with numerous opportunities; this is why he wonders why the contest is easily dismissed by critics.

"Beauty is part of what they consider but there are also other values like culture and one's intellect that the judges look out for. I think people choose to misinterpret the relevance of beauty contests but their significance is evident to everyone. The girls that take part in these contests turn out to be responsible young women who engage in activities that build the country," he says. Journalist Egidie Bibio Ingabire explains that Miss Rwanda is not a new concept for it has been there in Rwandan tradition, though the methodology or criteria and intention keep changing.

She says beauty contests have an impact on women empowerment because they give a platform for the girls to be heard on different levels, and most importantly, it places them in leadership and mentorship roles. Beauty pageants are channels of various public campaigns or behavior change, the fact that these girls get a chance to be part of this, places women at the forefront of building our country, Ingabire says.

She, however, says that some aspects need to be changed, for instance, language, explaining that it shouldn't be the measurement of intellect, adding that the Miss Rwanda experience should nonetheless inform the education sector of the gaps they need to address. "Beauty pageants are good with diversity. They also serve as a good platform to promote Government policies related to youth, business and the creative industry, among others. But we need more creativity in the organization and management of selected beauty queens," she adds.

Giselle Karitanyi, on the other hand, says she has failed to understand the whole concept around beauty contests. She wonders why women put themselves in this position only for them to be picked on regarding how slim or fat they are. "I find this so demeaning that I overlook other benefits that come with the crown,' she says. And because of this, Karitanyi insists that beauty pageants show how sexism continues to be a part of society.

"They reduce women to objects to be judged based mainly on physical appearance. This is a problem that needs to be addressed," she says. Emmanuel Kanobana agrees with Karitanyi saying that beauty pageants encourage women to value self-worth that comes from physical beauty. This, he says, instils low self-esteem for those who can't meet certain standards that define beauty.

"This is how some end up going for plastic surgery to fit in. This form of standardizing beauty that a beautiful woman has to be of a certain weight or height condones self-criticism," he says.

Meghan Nimwiza, the newly crowned Miss Rwanda, says beauty contests go beyond judging women; they are an exceptional platform for girls to shine. Taking part in this competition calls for courage, and this means stepping out of one's comfort zone. "We get exposed and get to dig deep and search for our potential, discovering who we are and what we are capable of in the process," she says.

Becoming Miss Rwanda is an exceptional platform. People mostly focus on the beauty part, but it goes beyond that. Beauty queens represent a whole lot of things but most importantly look out for the good of society, Nimwiza says. Former Miss Rwanda Jolly Mutesi says beauty pageants help women reach out to a much broader audience and also develop their self-esteem.

For her, it has been a platform to spread awareness and address current issues among the youth, such as drug abuse and early pregnancies among young girls. Mutesi also says that these contests groom young girls into much more confident women. "It helped me enhance and develop my communication skills and leadership skills," she says.

How can beauty pageants be more appealing?

Amina Umuhoza, a feminist, says girls who take part in these contests need to be given proper training for them to be articulate enough; this will give them the ability to express and represent themselves in the best way. She puts emphasis on public speaking. She also recommends that participants join the race when they have proper projects that are up and running and already making an impact in society.

"It will be nice if they choose girls who have already started implementing their projects. I think this will make more sense. Also, girls contesting should have at least completed university," Umuhoza says. Dieudonne Ishimwe, the organizer of the Miss Rwanda contest, says beauty contests face a lot of controversy; however, he welcomes the criticism saying it is one way the pageant will get bigger and better. He also calls to the public to have constructive criticism as opposed to bashing the contest based on personal feelings.

"Beauty pageants are still a new concept so people should be more considerate. With time, it will get better. This is why we are welcoming all these ideas from people and as organisers we will consider them. I believe this will help the pageant become better and have an impact on the contestants," Ishimwe says.

Ishimwe also considers beauty contests as a platform with a huge impact on women empowerment. "The lives of the girls who take part receive a huge transformation, contestants acquire public speaking skills. The other thing is that this platform helps these young girls take on responsibility at an early age; they come up with projects that build our society," he says.

Ishimwe is of the view that people need to understand that empowerment comes in many forms and that it goes beyond financial support. "These girls get the ability to contribute to the development of their communities. They are constructing houses for the elderly, they are fighting malnutrition, they know they are able to do anything and imagine finding this confidence at a young age, picture what they can accomplish with this," Ishimwe says.

I will talk about this in the Rwandan concept. Beauty contests have an impact on women empowerment to a certain extent, for example, during boot camp, the girls are taught about cultural values and how to develop a project. Even after the contest, the winner is given a chance to work on that project that helps the community at large. With those examples, I believe they have an impact on women empowerment.

The author is a journalist