JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — Arual Longar was 9 years old when she decided to become a beauty queen. Growing up in refugee camps, the South Sudanese native watched her aunt compete on the world stage and dreamed of doing the same.
Today, the soft-spoken winner of last year’s Miss World South Sudan says she’s harnessing her powers to preach love and unity in her conflict-torn country.
“South Sudan is a place of war,” the 25-year-old said. “But it can’t stop us from achieving things.”
Amid the ethnic violence, famine and mass displacement in five years of civil war, a Miss World pageant carries on in one of the world’s most devastated countries.
Held in Freedom Hall, the main event venue for the elite of the capital, Juba, the pageant bears the signatures of any beauty contest worldwide. The young women compete on stage in front of hundreds of people and are judged on appearance and performance as well as intellect.
The Miss World qualifying pageant launched in 2011, the year South Sudan gained independence from Sudan. What began with 20 applicants from around the country and the diaspora has now grown to about 60. The global organization funds the local pageant; South Sudan’s government, while supportive, says it doesn’t contribute money.
The first round of auditions for this year’s event will begin in the coming weeks, with the winner to be announced in August. The new Miss South Sudan will compete for the global title of Miss World.
“This is a positive thing for women,” said Shelina Doro, a women’s protection officer with the United Nations. Even though beauty pageants can be “up for interpretation,” she said that at the moment in South Sudan “this is what we have.”
Women and girls have been targets for horrific physical and sexual violence amid the civil war that began in late 2013, enduring the threat of rape as they go about the daily basics of gathering water and firewood to survive. For the vast majority of people in the deeply impoverished East African country, the annual beauty pageants are unknown or simply a dream.
But the organizers are determined to deliver on the theme “beauty with a purpose.” Each year’s Miss World pageant requires contestants to pick a cause that supports communities.
“Whatever it is they want to do, we help them push it out,” Eva Lopa, one of the longtime judges, told The Associated Press. She said many of the young women choose issues close to home such as HIV/AIDS or campaigns to help the elderly who have suffered from years of conflict.
Since winning the Miss South Sudan title four years ago, 25-year-old Modong Manuela said she’s been given an unprecedented platform to travel the country advocating for girls’ education.
“I’ve been able to give back to my community,” Manuela said. “Every time I talk, girls say: ‘OK, it’s possible to access things to study and become an important, empowered person.'”
After winning the pageant, Manuela created her own line of reusable sanitary napkins that allow girls to attend school while they’re menstruating, a challenge for many young women across Africa.
However, other women’s advocates cautioned against the idea that women must be paraded and judged on their beauty before they are heard.
“It continues to perpetuate stereotypes of women, providing unrealistic expectations to young women and girls that looks are the most important when they could be focusing on other things that show the whole range of skills and capacities that they have,” said Funmi Balogun, a women’s rights activist working with U.N. Women in South Sudan.
But organizers said not only has the pageant been successful in drawing attention to the plight of girls in the country, making it more socially acceptable for women to work hard and “have brains,” it also has had a significant impact globally.
“It really helps our country in terms of how we’re perceived outside,” said Clara Benjamin, a former supermodel involved with the pageant. “They think we’re just a war-torn country and we’re always fighting and then they see our girls and are like: ‘You’re from South Sudan?'”
The beauty pageant encourages the country’s women to be proud of their looks, Benjamin said.
“It’s the epitome of being comfortable in your own skin,” she said. “We’ve been taught to be beautiful and black and proud and gorgeous.”
Pageant organizers are now considering applying for Miss Universe, once owned by President Donald Trump. Despite Trump’s reported vulgar comments about African nations, Benjamin said she thinks he would be a big supporter of South Sudan’s participation: “I think it’ll be great for his public relations.”