When a young girl wants to be Miss Rwanda

Miss Rwanda 2018 contestants. Above: Lilliane Iradukunda, Miss Rwanda 2018. Net photo

 “I have a dream to be Miss Rwanda one day.” There are hundreds, if not thousands, of young girls around the country who are growing up with a dream like this, and it is heart-breaking.

When Miss Rwanda is around the corner, it is the talk of the town, even weeks after it has ended.

On one unlucky evening, I heard my 10-year-old niece talk about her dream about being Miss Rwanda. Dreaming is great and it is beautiful, but for this specific dream, I was unsure. In my head, I kept asking myself, what can I tell her or encourage her to do so that she can become Miss Rwanda?

And this is where it dawned on me that there is almost nothing that I can encourage her to do to reach this dream. Be more beautiful? Aren’t dreams worthwhile when we can do something towards them?

Assuming there are things she could do, are these the things that we would want our kids to aspire to be? I would be devastated if my child aspired to be Miss Rwanda, and this is why:

The basic requirements are not something that a kid can work on; specific height, specific body weight, and the so-called “beauty”. Beauty is relative and as the saying goes, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, but through this pageant, beauty is standardised. Going back to height, what would I tell my daughter to do if she is short? What if she does not fit the “standardised beauty” measurements? Does that make her ugly?

What about a disabled child, would she ever have a shot at it?

The pageant gets so much publicity and I think it is intoxicating. Intoxicating to both the viewer and girls that are getting all this publicity at ages as tender as 18. It is intoxicating because the incentives and the benefits of being part of it would entice anyone. What publicity and incentives are other programmes engaging children or young people intellectually getting? Heard of Miss Geek? How about Idebate? These are just two of the programmes that are shaping the youth that we need as a country, but they don’t get half the publicity of Miss Rwanda.

One of the selling points for Miss Rwanda is that it promotes the Rwandan culture, but is cat-walking our culture because it dominates from day one? If we want to promote the Rwandan culture, let us create programmes that are purely cultural, not a pseudo-culture promoting programme. And these can be programmes that enable both participant and the audience, or whoever is following, to learn more about their culture. Let us create traditional dancing competitions, kwivuga, traditional songs and the like.

Representing Rwanda on the international stage? What would happen if Rwanda is not part of Miss World and other beauty pageants, what value does it give to us anyway, apart from complaints about girls dressing inappropriately from those concerned with culture?

My argument is, what real value is Miss Rwanda bringing to Rwandan society? Aren’t we derailing the work of empowering women that has already been done by telling girls that all they need is their body, be “beautiful”, smile well, cat-walk and answer a few questions, and they’ll be set for life?

Educate me, what should I tell my niece to do so that she becomes Miss Rwanda? What would you tell your child, or a kid in a remote primary school in Rwanda, to do to become Miss Rwanda, because it comes with unprecedented opportunities?

I might be biased, but I would be absolutely heartbroken if my child dreamed of contesting for Miss Rwanda. I believe we should promote and support programmes and initiatives that give a chance to all and can encourage a specific kind of action towards getting there, most especially from the young people.

If this programme is to become a real girl-empowering initiative, then there is a lot more that needs to be changed, specifically those that look at women’s bodies for eligibility and success in the programme.

The author is a youth advocate based in Kigali.