Pageants and prostitution

Officials in Uganda threaten to ban beauty contests, saying they lead contestants astray.

By Jack Boulware
Published August 9, 2000 7:11PM (EDT)

In most cultures, winning a beauty contest is hailed as a professional, if vacuous, steppingstone to adulthood. Young women judged to be beautiful in these competitions can then parlay their genetically blessed features into any variety of empty-headed occupations, from spokeswoman to model, broadcaster or girlfriend of Donald Trump.

But national authorities in the East African country of Uganda believe that beauty contests invariably lead to turning back-alley tricks and posing for porn photographers. Ugandan contest promoters award winning girls prizes such as television sets and free tickets to Nairobi, Kenya, but these trophies make little difference to young women growing up in a nation where the poverty level is nearly 50 percent. The contestants therefore attempt to capitalize on the contests as much as possible by selling nude photos of themselves or walking the streets as hookers.

So the government is now threatening to abolish the contests entirely. Ethics and Integrity Minister Miria Matembe canceled the finals of one beauty contest earlier this year, in the Kampala suburb of Nateete, after photos of the competitors' breasts and butts started appearing in the press.

"The contests have gone astray and government cannot just sit by and watch," one priest told a local news agency. Last week, Canon Nelson Kaweesa of the Namirembe diocese, the seat of the Anglican Church in Uganda, said his officials are starting a church campaign to eliminate the beauty contests. Muslims also are upset by the competitions, which go against sharia, or strict Islamic law.

Politicians say they have no alternative but to abolish the contests.

"When we give them licenses to operate, it does not mean that they should go and start promoting nudity," said Internal Affairs Minister Edward Rugumayo, who is in charge of the police. "This is pornography and we shall be forced to ban such beauty contests."

The Internal Affairs Ministry and religious leaders are meeting to discuss how best to reform the nation's beauty contests. In the meantime, tourists to Uganda who are interested in purchasing sexual services are advised that the prostitutes may not be as beautiful anymore.

Jack Boulware

Jack Boulware is a writer in San Francisco and author of "San Francisco Bizarro" and "Sex American Style."

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