By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI, Feb 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Uganda must cancel a beauty contest that seeks to attract more visitors by showcasing "curvy women" because it objectifies women and promotes sex tourism, campaigners said on Thursday.
Tourism Minister Godfrey Kiwanda sparked outrage on Wednesday when he unveiled the "Miss Curvy Uganda" contest, saying the east African nation had "naturally endowed" women who should be used as "a strategy" to boost tourism.
Women's rights activists, politicians, church leaders and ordinary Ugandans said the contest was "state-sponsored objectification of women" and was treating women as though they were wildlife. Some are calling on Kiwanda to resign.
More than 1,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the tourism ministry to abandon the pageant and apologise to the public.
"In Uganda, the ministry of tourism has added 'curvy women' on the list of 'tourism attractions'. I personally feel attacked. This is degrading women," said Primrose Murungi, an entrepreneur and activist who started the online petition.
"In a country where women are grabbed by men while walking on the streets and now they have legalised it by making them tourist attractions is not fair. They are objectifying us and reducing women to nothing."
Tourism is a major foreign exchange earner for Uganda. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit annually to experience its diverse wildlife reserves, home to half the world's population of endangered mountain gorillas.
"We have naturally endowed nice looking women that are amazing to look at," said Kiwanda during an event in Kampala to launch the "Miss Curvy Uganda" pageant. "Why don't we use these people as a strategy to promote our tourism industry.
Critics said vulnerable women and girls were already being trafficked from Uganda overseas for sex, and the move by the ministry of tourism would encourage the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls at home.
"We know how our girls have been exported as sex slaves," parliamentarian Benard Atiko told local reporters.
"And now for them to be used locally and marketed on websites to earn money - while dehumanising our women - is unacceptable."
Some Ugandans on social media argued the beauty contest would help to challenge the Western stereotype that only slim women are beautiful, saying the pageant celebrated the diversity of all body shapes, including those of African women.
But many disagreed.
"It's important to delink women's body image and expression, curvy or otherwise, from any tourism talk or venture," tweeted Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire.
"Curvy women have been fighting back against the European beauty standards of beauty pageants for so long. The point here is Uganda is not a human zoo!"
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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