Starting in 1972 with the implementation of a “Beauty with a Purpose” contest by the Miss World organization, beauty pageants worldwide have raised expectations that winners will be informed and effective advocates for humanitarian causes. In 2012, three women associated with the Miss World Brazil competition — a contestant studying dermatology, a contestant studying medicine, and a pageant presenter — contacted Movement for the Reintegration of Persons Affected by Hansen’s Disease (MORHAN) with a proposal for partnership. After starting out in Rio de Janeiro, the partnership has been refined and expanded as the two organizations have continued to work together over the past 10 years.
The decade-long partnership in Brazil inspired organizers of the 2nd Global Forum of People’s Organizations on Hansen’s Disease to invite two current pageant winners to Hyderabad as special guests: Miss World Brazil 2022 Letícia Frota and Miss Supranational India 2023 Pragnya Ayyagari. The two pageant winners participated actively, sitting in on many of the presentations and sharing their thoughts at a special session on the final day. They also took part in a press conference as well as a dialogue with WHO Goodwill Ambassador Yohei Sasakawa.
Frota has been an official “Hansen’s Disease Ambassador” for MORHAN since being crowned Miss World Brazil 2022. At the Global Forum, she shared, “This struggle together with MORHAN started 10 years ago, and we have been doing a lot of hard work to be able to give voice to the cause of Hansen’s disease in Brazil.”
In particular, she emphasized the importance of reaching out to children. “By working with young people, we will be able to change the future landscape of the disease and spread awareness. I want to bring them the message that they should include others in society. Regardless of who we are, we have the right to be included in society and this message should be spread throughout the world,” she said. “I want to use the power of the crown and the position I have to draw attention to this cause.”
Beauty competitions in India do not have the same history of collaboration with leprosy-related people’s organizations, and so Miss Supranational India 2023 knew only of Mother Teresa’s work for leprosy patients before attending the Global Forum. On the last day of the Forum, Ayyagari shared, “I learned a lot about the disease. I heard all the stories and journeys (of persons affected), how they have been fighting and how COVID-19 has adversely affected the cause because people might have forgotten about Hansen’s disease.”
Going forward, Miss Supranational India also plans to focus on raising awareness among young people: “It is very important to educate children, because they are the future of our nation. When we tell them what leprosy/Hansen’s disease is, that is when they will understand. They will look at persons affected by leprosy differently. It is our duty to change their perspective. I am really proud to be raising awareness and using the power of the crown to amplify the cause. I see myself working on this even after I pass down my crown.”
Vice President of India’s Association of People Affected by Leprosy (APAL) Jawahar Ram Paswan told the two pageant winners, “I would like you to spread awareness that the people who are going through this disease need to be integrated into the mainstream. We are people who need your love, we need your hugs. We have the right to live as normal people. Please spread awareness.”
WHO Goodwill Ambassador Sasakawa likewise expressed his hopes and gratitude: “Although we have taken various actions, discrimination still exists, so your involvement will have a real impact on raising awareness. We treasure your engagement in this cause.”