Smile and wave. It is easy to see 21 year old Emily Ayen, adorned with the sparkling crown of Miss Tourism Uganda, and assume there is nothing more to her pageanting success than looking pretty. It is easy to miss that behind the mascara is a mission.
Emily Ayen is from the Karamojong Tribe in Northern Uganda, a Nilotic tribe with Ethiopian descent, bordering South Sudan and Kenya. Her passion for change was initially sparked by social issues in her village. Although there are 56 tribes in Uganda, the Karamojong maintain a much more traditional lifestyle and a reputation than most.
“My tribe are known to be so hostile.” shared Emily. Being agro-pastoral Nomadic herders, the Karamojong live and die for their cattle; “anything that could interfere with their animals is a threat to their lives.”
It is this mindset that Emily thinks is problematic for Karamojong’s young people— “you find a Karamojong [man] has herds and herds of cattle, but none of his kids are educated, even though just one cow would pay for a whole term of tuition.” This pervasive attitude towards education in her tribe, and across much of Uganda, is one Emily is keen to change. But it’s not the only pressing issue.
“There is a lot of GBV [gender-based violence]. Really, so much. Men want to be superior, so there is a lot of abuse.” Emily explains. “Because there are herds and herds of animals, they don’t really care about their women. They can easily get any other women using their cattle. For example, you can easily convince an elder to give you their daughter in exchange for a cow.
Emily recounted stories of friends who were victims of female genital mutilation (FGM), and how she took on the role of peer educator on GBV. “Every day, I’d have at least three girls come to me with issues.” Supporting young women through these incidents of abuse inspired Emily to advocate for change.
“I’m most passionate about the girl child. So much. Her education, her opportunities, her chances in life beyond just marriage.I feel like there is so much more potential in them than just being given for bride price. My tribe needs to recognise this.”
However, the route to achieving this recognition was unclear, particularly as a young woman. “I wanted a platform where everyone in Karamoja, even men, would listen to little me. I didn’t want to go the political way. I didn’t want to join the government—I’m still a baby! I just knew, I have a voice. And I’ll do what I have to, to make it heard.”
Then Emily found pageants.
“It was in high school. It looked so good. All the little girls looking up to you as a role model. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted a platform.”
Inspired by the work that the former Miss Uganda was able to do surrounding teenage pregnancy in Uganda, Emily made it her mission to succeed in the pageant scene. “It is much easier to get funding when you have a title,” she explained.
And Emily Ayen now holds the title of Miss Tourism Uganda.
Though pageants are sometimes associated with vanity or superficiality, Emily argues that for her, there has always been much more to it than looking pretty. “If it was all about beauty, I wouldn’t have a crown right now. It was the best route to having my voice heard. You have to read and study. Have goals. Opinions. Visions for your country and issues you’re passionate about. It is beauty for a purpose.”
Through her success, Emily received funding towards multiple projects directed at key issues within her tribe. She set up a women’s rights group in Karamoja called Etiongoit Akoro. Here, women have a space to discuss issues of GBV, but also to learn new livelihood skills. Emily taught traditional crafts to the group, such as Karamojong beaded bracelets. These can be exported to Kampala to sell to tourists. “It gives these women more money, a purpose, and prevents them doing a lot of funny things to make money for a living.” She hopes this club will serve to further empower women in her village and help fund the education of their children, especially girls.
Emily has delivered speeches in Karamojong villages about the importance of the girl child. Last year, she also set up a charity called “Bring A Smile”, focused on Karamojong children begging on the streets of Kampala. Emily has found her platform useful to generate change; “I can walk into a room of important men, and with my sash, I am someone. I am listened to and my voice on these issues really matters.”
However she encourages young people to speak up about the issues affecting them whether they have a platform or not. “It starts with you. You don’t need a platform to have a voice. I realised my community had issues and I knew I wanted to do something about it.”
With two upcoming outreach events in Ghana and Nepal, Emily is excited for the future of her work and its possibilities. “Pageants are the start. I believe that if I get a bigger platform, an international platform, I can create real social impact, systemic change and solve issues for my country and tribe.” She hopes to one day set up an all girls’ school in her village; a school that fuels girls to achieve their full potential.
I am inspired by Emily’s drive and visions. “One day, all Karamojong girls will go to school, be able to hold positions of leadership in the village and believe that they have important voices. I am going to play a part in that.”
The next time you question the value of pageants, remember what they can be used to attain: A platform for change.