This week threw a major surprise in the form of a newspaper advertisement in a daily Manipuri newspaper. It was an announcement for a “Manipur Barbie Queen contest” for under 12 year olds to be held at in the hall of the memorial to Subhash Chandra Bose at INA, Moirang! While there is no dearth of shocking developments taking place around us like the very recent warning to private mobile service providers to wrap up their mobile towers and the deafening silence from the civil bodies; this small advertisement made me blink in shock. Just how have we reached this plane where sensibilities have disappeared?
First of all, the sheer madness of it! How can girls younger than 12 years compete in a beauty contest? And then, a contest that is named after Barbie; the classic prototype of blond and anorexic? Won’t a beauty contest for young children be a classic case of child exploitation and rights violation? What parameters would be used to judge the young participants? These questions trouble me deeply. A child is beautiful in his or her own way regardless of features or attire. It is their inherent innocence and playful nature. So why should beauty contests happen where children will be made to look like caricatures of adults?
Children can pull at heart-strings. They can also be a market decider. That is why most print and visual advertisements feature children, regardless of whether the product being sold is a toothpaste, soap, noodles, car and other vehicles, electric appliances et el. The strategy works because when a child sees another child possessing something that he/she does not have, her concentration goes to that
object. Try saying a “no” to a child who after popular advertisements for snacks wants a packet. You can risk it at the cost of your ear-drums being shattered by unending wails. My own soon to be 6 year old explains to me kindly: “Mama, they also say brushing your teeth twice a day keeps off all germs. So why can’t I have a pack of Uncle Chips/Bingo/Mamoos…?” Try getting past that logic! And while building a brand with a child appearing in its advertisement is another matter altogether, the concept of beauty contests for young children may well be unethical and violating norms of child protection. Some of the Constitutional rights that may well end up being violated are Article 39 (vocation unsuited to age, protection of children against exploitation), Article 45 (no child below 14
years shall be engaged in hazardous employment) and Article 46 (protection from social injustice and exploitation). Also, every child has a right to participate in cultural activities that may include songs, dance and any other artistic pursuit recognized to be healthy. But a beauty contest for young children cannot be termed “healthy” by any stretch of imagination.
But how do such contests tend to go towards exploitation? The answer is clear on this: with children as the main players, there will be parents who will happily assume that the contest is a platform for their child to show her talent, to prove herself. Some critics can even turn around and question my disquiet saying: “but if the parents are comfortable with their young children taking part in a beauty contest, why raise a hue and cry?” The fact is that most parents will not look critically into the question. They will get carried away by the hype, the shot at 3 minutes of fame n local channels and newspapers, the few amount of prize money but not consider that such a contest will only serve the interest of everyone concerned but for the children taking part in it. That is where the child would end up being exploited by all parties concerned.
Some time earlier, there was intense debate on a national level around the nature of “talent contests” on TV channels that featured child artists and hopefuls as participants. The debate happened following the emotional and mental break down of a young child participating in a music reality show. She had been given a public and very vocal criticism of her performance and went into such trauma that she had to be hospitalized. Following this incident, there was a public and media scrutiny over the nature of children taking part in such talent contests: how many hours would they have to practice before they went on TV, how many hours they would get to rest and sleep and play and how much can children take in as public criticism. Soon, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) came up with strict laws for TV shows involving children. These call for a counselor on the sets of the show, limited working hours and no deep make-up for children.
Competitions are part of the process of growing up but when it is tied to the concept of beauty, it gets into a difficult terrain. Perhaps the organizers of this soon to be held contest have not thought much into it and gone ahead with their planning. But it is not too late to consider what demons they might well unleash in the lives of the young girls. Small little girls who will walk under public scrutiny and perform songs or dance or whatever it is they have to do to take way a crown that will be meaningless in a place where they don’t have a clue over their future and its safety. PS: A photograph of the advertisement along with a calling attention has been sent to the Chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights to alert them about this forth-coming event. This step had to be taken up on an individual level following the silence from NGOs working for Child rights Protection in the state at the time of writing this column.