Let us get straight to the point. By endorsing the so-called “Miss Curvy Uganda” display of women’s bodies, Godfrey Kiwanda, Uganda’s minister of State for Tourism, is promoting sex tourism. Massaging the matter with language that attempts to lend honour to the planned project does not alter the fact that it is an exploitative objectification of women for monetary gain.
To argue that pageants like “Miss Uganda” and “Miss Tourism”, which display smaller-build women, some in semi-nude presentation, are already part of the culture is to suggest that two wrongs make a right. Their longevity has blinded society to what they truly are - exploitative practices that objectify women for the pleasure of gawking men.
They too should be outlawed in Uganda. The Uganda Government, on whose behalf Kiwanda speaks and acts, is ultimately responsible for promoting sex tourism. Without a clear and formal veto of his minister’s unconscionable plan, President Yoweri Museveni’s personal objection to the idea does not carry any legal weight. Furthermore, the President undermined his own position on the “Miss Curvy Uganda” business by endorsing so-called “beauty” contests. There is absolutely no difference between displaying smaller build women and larger ones. It is all about objectification of women for, mostly, men’s pleasure. One notes, in passing, that we are yet to hear of Mister Uganda contests.
That the chief organiser of the planned event is a woman is not surprising. Many women have been socialised to believe, without questioning, that their bodies are commodities to be sold. (Some of the passionate defenders of bride price, in the year 2019, are women. But that is a discussion for another day.)
Ms Anne Mungoma, the chief executive officer of this sordid enterprise, is reported to have said that the idea was meant to show that Uganda was “endowed with natural African women” around whom tourism campaigns could be arranged. Displaying Ugandan women’s bodies may indeed attract some tourists, but not the kind any civilised society would want in its midst. Happily, the vast majority of tourists seek opportunities to discover breathtaking landscapes, wild animals they have never seen, new culinary experiences, and stories and histories of people of different cultures.
Provide a peaceful and secure environment, with efficient services, then use modern methods and avenues to promote Uganda as a choice destination for tourists. They will respond by the hundreds of thousands. It is possible to promote our culture and our economy without disrespecting women. For example, Uganda’s multi-ethnic communities are endowed with a wealth of traditional attires that ought to be marketed to the world through respectful and responsible modelling. Imagine an afternoon or evening where Ugandan men and women don attire that celebrates our heritage, presented by representatives of all ages, all shades of natural complexion and beauty and other variations that make all God’s children a marvel to behold.
Imagine respectful and well-informed narrators telling the stories of our gorgeous clothing, modelled by men and women walking naturally and gracefully as though strolling into church or into a respected uncle’s compound. Then imagine the models – male and female – sharing knowledge of interesting aspects of our national story with their audience. And then imagine capping it all with high-octane performances of our traditional music and dances, with invitations to the audience to join in. This would be a more thrilling experience for tourists than gawking at Mungoma and Kiwanda’s “natural women.” More importantly, it would promote our country without dishonouring its subjects. Incidentally, sexualising Uganda’s tourism economy would likely have a negative impact on the country. The world, actively engaged in a process of empowering women, would disapprove of Kiwanda’s outrageous plan. Opinion leaders in countries with which Uganda enjoys consequential economic and social development partnerships would be so incensed that relationships might become strained. The citizens of those lands, especially active advocates for women’s rights, would pressure their leaders and fellow citizens to act. A tourism boycott would probably not be far behind.
Kiwanda’s plan reminds me of Canada’s Dionne Quintuplets, five little girls, born two months prematurely on May 10, 1934, who were soon taken over by the Provincial Government of Ontario as wards of the state. For nearly a decade, they were treated as tourist attractions, gazed at by up to 6,000 tourists a day. More than a 10-year period, the Dionne Quintuplets were gawked at by three million tourists, earning the Ontario Government an estimated $50 million (about $1.6 billion today).
While one understands the social and cultural values that encouraged the maltreatment of those children eight decades ago, one cringes at the thought of human beings gawked at as though they were wild animals or strange creatures from outer space. That episode remains a stain on the Ontario Government. Not even a $2.8 million compensation settlement paid to the surviving sisters in 1998 was enough to erase the national shame and the psychological damage that they suffered.
Kiwanda’s (and, by extension, the Uganda Government’s) latest endorsement of activities that seek to trade in female nakedness is a reminder that for many, the clock remains stuck in a less enlightened period that viewed and treated women as chattel.
However, this episode offers Uganda an opportunity. The first step is for the Executive and legislative branches of government to work together to abolish practices that objectify and exploit women. The second step is to address the social, cultural, economic and political determinants that compel some women to engage in these activities which many of them hate.
Let this moment not pass without a national mindset change to actively value women because of their character, their intellect, their contributions to society and their personal achievements.
We must value and respect all women as human beings with as broad a spectrum of physical and intellectual variations as do men. I agree with Ms Mungoma that Uganda has millions of natural women. They are engaged in various endeavours that benefit from their intellect, their industry, their patient approach to very challenging tasks and, above all, their roles as mothers and nurturers of the country’s future leaders. It is this and their Obuntu (humanity) that we should celebrate.