People who move to Uganda from the west say it’s like enjoying an endless summer. The east African country, one of the biggest beer consumers in the world, always has an excuse to party and bars are open 24/7. In fact, there is a four-day dance festival that attracts people from all over the world. Overwhelmed by all the heat and partying? Take a trip to any of the 36 nature reserves, trek to see the chimpanzees, or just wander and marvel at the scenery.
Uganda will do anything to keep its admirers interested. In 2017, the country, with support from World Bank, paid $1.5m to PR firms in Europe and America to bolster its tourism trade. In 2018, it spent a further $1.2m on similar initiatives in China, Japan and the Gulf states. And now the tourism minister, Godfrey Kiwanda, has announced a new way of selling the country abroad: a beauty pageant that will have Uganda’s curvaceous women “showcase their beautiful curves and intellect”.
Kiwanda believes the pageant will attract visitors who will not only come to see nature and wildlife, but beautiful “real African” women. “Those curves, there is a story behind them. This is a story we want to tell,” he said at a press conference where examples of said curvaceous women were paraded.
Obviously, Kiwanda has never been a curvaceous woman, or any other kind of woman, in Uganda. Otherwise he would have known what Ugandan women endure, and his Miss Curvy campaign would not have been so tasteless.
He would have been more empathetic towards those bodies, which are grabbed on the street and preyed on by men under the watch of the police. Perhaps his campaign would have been about making the streets safe for female tourists, who are particular targets for heckling. In one case a German woman was raped by the rider of a boda boda (motorcycle taxi).
If Kiwanda and the government he works for really cared about women’s stories, another woman would not have been murdered last month. Police would not have failed to investigate the murders of the dozens of women kidnapped last year – resulting in the release of suspects for lack of evidence. It would be clear to them that the evil spirit behind laws that seek to punish women deemed indecently dressed in government offices or on the streets is the same spirit that fuels rapes and killings. And they certainly would not be trying to trade women’s bodies – which they have long considered too sexy, provocative or deserving of abuse – for foreign currency.
At first Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda, said he understood the concept of Miss Curvy, insisting that it was no different from any other beauty pageant. Later, however, he distanced himself from it. “This was not a cabinet decision. People should not come here to see women. I do not like the idea that we are marketing our women for tourism.”
And religious leaders including Simon Lokodo – a former minister of ethics and former priest who is at the forefront of a witch hunt for gay people and “indecent” women – also spoke out against the pageant.
“This thing they are doing is very bad for the country. Uganda is a moral country. We have so many things we can use instead of women’s bodies,” he said.
When your enemies start to fight on your side, you must watch them very closely. The women’s rights movement should not be so quick to embrace Lokodo, Museveni and the religious leaders who find Miss Curvy despicable but stay silent when a woman is undressed on the street while men cheer. It is confusing to see the leader of a government where women are stopped from entering ministries and parliament if they are deemed too “sexy” now say that he is against the objectification of women.
A closer look at the reasons why government and religious leaders are against the Miss Curvy pageant suggests that they are more angry that the moral fabric of the country is being assaulted than concerned about the women exposed to harassment and abuse.
Tourism brings in about $1.4bn to Uganda annually – nearly 10% of GDP. However, its poor governance and human rights record has stifled its potential for tourism, and the country’s profile is dwarfed by neighbours Kenya and Rwanda.
Uganda has ambitious development goals, including becoming a middle-income country by 2020. Attracting revenue at the expense of women’s dignity is perhaps part of the plan.
The women who turned up for Miss Curvy say they are happy to be tourist attractions and make money at the same time. What they do not realise is that the system will be designed so that they receive only crumbs.
And, once again, the only winners will be the men who think a woman’s body is a source of vulgarity and distraction – unless, of course, that body is being used for the benefit of a man, whether it be the man holding political office, the man grappling her on the street, or the abusive man in her home.