The history of Vanuatu’s beauty pageants dates back to 1980 when Ms. Alice Garae was crowned Miss Vanuatu Independence on July 30th 1980 — the very same day that Vanuatu gained independence.

Ms. Garae had been nominated by her community to represent Ambae but it was not her beauty that resulted in her win but rather her ability to raise funds for charity.

As she had raised the highest amount of money, she was awarded with a crown and trophy that was literally half her size, while wearing a modest, long blue dress. To this day, she is considered a highly respected woman in her community.

Since then, there have been several beauty pageants held in Vanuatu but they have been few and far between. The last time Miss Vanuatu was held was in 2013, which saw Ms. Valerie Martinez, who is of Spanish and Tannese descent, win the title. Prior to that, Ms. Glenda Laban won the title in 2005.

Ms. Martinez went on to represent Vanuatu at regional and international beauty pageants including Miss South Pacific in Solomon Islands and Miss Asia Pacific in Korea. She has also attended local events hosted by the Vanuatu Tourism office such as the Vanuatu Tourism Awards for Excellence as well as regional trade shows in Australia and New Caledonia.

She has appeared in tourism promotional videos for Vanuatu with the latest video being produced by Whitelight Media. Furthermore Ms. Martinez has been the brand ambassador for several businesses such as TVL, The Summit and Vanuatu Bijouterie Fine Jewelry. On top of all those other commitments, she has also done community work, including participating in environmental clean up campaigns and visiting children at the hospital.

Mrs. Beverly Stafford organized Miss Vanuatu 2005 and Miss Vanuatu 2013 and says, “The first time I organized the beauty pageant was 11 years ago.

“I wanted to promote the beauty and intellect of young Ni-Vanuatu women.

“I wanted them to gain confidence in their communication skills and to help foster positive qualities such as learning how to think on their feet.

“These are skills they can use when they go looking for jobs. If they do win the pageant, they become the face of tourism which accounts for a large part of Vanuatu’s economy.”

Although it is unclear when the next Miss Vanuatu will take place due to legal issues arising from the legitimacy of the name of the committee, Ms. Michelle Bourie, the owner of the charitable association titled ‘Miss Vanuatu and Miss Port Vila’, believes that the next pageant will not only showcase the beauty of Ni-Vanuatu women but will also raise much needed funds for children and schools.

“We are still suffering from Cyclone Pam.

“Have you been to Mele?

“The children are still going to school in tents,” Ms. Bourie said.

“I think this event is a great way to help raise funds for the community.”

Some people do not share the same sentiments.

One of them is Mrs. Merilyn Tahi, the director of the Vanuatu Women’s Centre. On Wednesday 23rd November, Mrs. Tahi posted on popular Facebook forum YTS to call on the government and parents of young Ni-Vanuatu women to boycott Miss Vanuatu as she doesn’t believe that we should use the bodies of women to fundraise for national needs.

Mrs. Tahi further stated that Miss Vanuatu is demeaning to women and showed them no respect or dignity and that the event promotes violence against women.

She wrote, “Hemia i wan fasin blong diskriminesen long ol woman Vanuatu, we iagensem CEDAW we kantri i saenem long 1995. Ol woman Vanuatu ino blong yumi laenemap olgeta mo jajem ol long ol stael we ino blong mifala. Ol man fulap taem oli glat blong lukim kaen show olsem ia be show olsem ia tu i mekem mifala ol woman i luk olsem ol prostitute.”

Mrs. Tahi does have a point – surely there are other ways that a woman can contribute to the development of Vanuatu without having to objectify her body or pit against other women?

In a country as patriarchal as Vanuatu where women are often considered the ‘property’ of her husband, these sorts of events can reinforce the idea that women are objects that can be paraded around and played with for our entertainment.

Patriarchal attitudes often come hand in hand with the culture of victim blaming and when you consider that Mrs. Tahi has been spearheading the anti-violence movement since 1992 and is well aware of the injustices that women have faced, her concerns do have a degree of legitimacy.

It is the unfortunate reality that many men who do rape women believe that she was ‘asking for it’ and will justify their crime on what the victim was wearing or how much she was drinking or if she was alone at night.

When Mrs. Tahi suggests that Miss Vanuatu contestants look like prostitutes, is it only because she is worried that if men see women parading on a stage wearing swimwear, it could lead to unrealistic expectations of women and justify violence against them?

Men in Vanuatu have already blamed women for wearing pants for ‘causing rape’ – who is to say that they won’t blame Miss Vanuatu for arousing their criminal behavior?

In a society where women are already expected to perform traditional gender roles such as staying at home to cook, clean and look after kids, could the oppressive nature of a beauty pageant further deny their humanity?

With the primary focus of beauty pageants being on how a woman looks and where she is graded on performances of femininity such as how well she can strut in high heels, it may foster the attitude that the only value of a woman is how well she conforms to gender stereotypes with her primary value being measured on how pretty she is.

So the question still remains — do beauty pageants really discriminate against women? Or does it empower them?

Mr. Sebastian Bador from the Vanuatu Tourism Office has had lots of behind-the-scenes experience with Miss Vanuatu events. He thinks the pageant is an opportunity for young Ni-Vanuatu women to celebrate their heritage and to be a voice for other women.

“I do not think the event sexualizes women.

“If you look at Ni-Vanuatu culture, the traditional attire for women is a grass skirt and no top.

“I also do not believe that this event encourages violence against women, especially when statistics show that most cases of rape is incestuous and within their own homes.”

Mr. Bador reveals that it was interesting to witness how shy the contestants would be during rehearsals in the swimwear category. They would wear sarongs to cover themselves up and yet on the day of the actual event, they were confident enough to not cover up at all.

“I think it’s because they couldn’t see who was in the audience because of the lights shining on them,” he says.

Mrs. Stafford agrees with him. She says, “The pageant encourages women to have self confidence – it’s about natural beauty and taking pride in their culture.”

You only need to look at the work that Ms. Martinez has done to promote investment, tourism and trade as a testament to how Miss Vanuatu has positively impacted the country.

Rather than boycott Miss Vanuatu altogether, the pageant can offer criteria that reflects Ni-Vanuatu values rather than Western ideals.

Mrs. Jenny Ligo, the chairwoman of Women Against Crime and Corruption and sister of the first Miss Vanuatu, says that committee should consider inviting people on board to determine what the criteria should be.

“Modeling is not a career in Vanuatu. I support a charity Queen but it should not be all about beauty. We need more support from families, friends, business houses and even the government to promote the event in a positive way and make it less discriminating towards women.”

As some of the social media critics have suggested to Mrs. Tahi regarding her comments – why can’t the next Miss Vanuatu be used as a platform to promote the very thing that Mrs. Tahi stands for, which is the empowerment and liberation of Ni-Vanuatu women?

Maybe the committee of the next Miss Vanuatu will consider using the pageant as not just a vehicle to promote tourism in Vanuatu, but also as a way to push forth the women’s movement and highlight the discrimination that Ni-Vanuatu women face on a daily basis.

Besides — if we are going to be objectified we may as well take ownership of it. Let this be our opportunity to use our bodies for our own agenda and show the boys that not only are we beautiful but we also have brains too.

This article was originally published in Vanuatu Daily Post’s Life and Style magazine.