Uganda: 'Curvy' Tourism Campaign Rattles Feminists

State Minister for Tourism Mr Godfrey Kiwanda with Ugandan models at the launch of ‘Miss Curvy Uganda’ at a Kampala hotel on February 5, 2019.

Uganda is on the hunt to find the next Miss Curvy, as part of a new beauty pageant to attract more tourists. However, the campaign to promote its "naturally endowed nice-looking women" has sparked an uproar in the east African nation.

The pageant, unveiled on Tuesday, targets "women with big bums and hips"; an indicator referred to by the organisers as "True Ugandan Beauty."

"Uganda is endowed with beautiful women," Tourism minister, Godfrey Kiwanda, the one pushing the initiative told AFP news agency on Thursday.

"Their beauty is unique and diverse. That's why we decided to use the unique beauty, the curves... " added Kiwanda.

Yet the proposal to add "curvy and sexy women" to official literature that lists Uganda's attractions, has angered women's rights activists.

"It could have been a very good compliment to say that the people of Uganda are beautiful," comments feminist Primrose Nyonyozi Murungi.

"But you do not need to exploit human beings," she told RFI.

The organisers have defended the move, arguing that the pageant is aimed at appreciating all women despite their body size.

For Murungi, size is not the issue.

Sexual objectification

"The topic today is about curvy women, but this is about the objectification of women everywhere in the world," says the activist, whose online campaign to cancel the contest collected some 1,300 signatures Thursday.

"It does not matter if they were parading slim women or bigger women; at the end of the day, these issues affect all of us."

A mission statement on the Miss Curvy Uganda website states: "Uganda is dubbed as being gifted by nature. This is not only exhibited by the abundance of natural resources, but it also extends to the people of Uganda."

"It is outrageous that somebody can say something like that and still continue to be a minister," explains Patricia Twasiima, a lawyer and feminist.

The Miss Curvy campaign, scheduled for June, has further ruffled feathers among female activists due to its timing.

"It adds to the pattern of degrading comments towards women," Twasiima told RFI.

"We have had ministers and members of parliament who have said it is ok to beat women. We have had ministers who have called for rape upon women who are wearing short skirts, with absolutely no consequence," stresses Twasiima.

Return to the past

There could be consequences however for those "curvy women" who will be used as a "product" to promote tourism.

"When you want to parade us women, whether slim or curvy for you to attract tourists, how are you going to monetize this if you're not selling off your body? If you are not charging for women to be looked at by men," asks Murungi.

Twasiima shares her concerns.

"This is a country that criminalizes sex work, but now women are going to be a tourist attraction, to what end? What's the purpose of that campaign?"

For the lawyer, it is "yet another example of just how much more work needs to be done to undo a patriarchal system that allows for things like this to be normalized."

As for Murungi, the Miss Curvy campaign is reminiscent of the freak show attractions of the 19th century.

"It takes us back to the age where Sarah Baartman was paraded to be looked at because she had bigger buttocks than everyone else."

This South-African woman, famous for her rear behind, died in Paris in 1815, with her voluptuous body parts carved up and later displayed in museums.

"Can you imagine how embarrassing that is, how cringe worthy that is as a human being?" asks Murungi.

Ugandan women are nowhere near to experiencing such a fate nowadays.

But in 2017, dozens of female Ugandans were killed in a series of gruesome murders in the capital, Kampala, making them vulnerable to any stereotypes that could be used to attack women.

Face of Miss Curvy sues government

One year after the #MeToo moment, the Miss Curvy campaign, "is undoing all of the work that the women in the world have done," adds the female petitioner.

Twasiima agrees. "It is not just one comment, it has a triple down effect that could lead to violence against women," explains the lawyer.

Tourism minister Kiwanda, in a bid to stem the rising anger, has insisted the campaign is not aimed at demeaning women.

"Diverse as we are as a country we have a message to put out there about the different curves our women have, which we believe is a tourism attraction."

Ironically though, no Ugandan woman is curvy enough to be the face of the Miss Curvy contest.

Instead, the tourism ministry picked the very vivacious Kenyan media personality Grace Msalame.

Taken aback by such a move, Msalame is now suing the government for defamation and character assassination.

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