Global Citizen is a community of people like you

People who want to learn about and take action on the world’s biggest challenges. Extreme poverty ends with you.

Reuters/Carlos Jasso
Girls & Women

Panama's First Indigenous Beauty Queen Is Breaking Down Social Barriers

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA, Aug 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Born into Panama's Comarca Ngobe Bugle Indigenous community, Rosa Montezuma is only too well aware of the challenges girls face getting an education and pursuing their dreams.

Now as Panama's first Indigenous woman in the Miss Universe beauty pageant, Montezuma hopes to become an example to show others they can overcome prejudice and stereotypes.

"Indigenous women by nature are a little bit demure, hidden, and submissive because of the culture we live in," Montezuma told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Take action: Tell Corporate and World Leaders Why Investing in Girls' Learning Is Key

"More than anything, it's being an example for other women and opening the doors not only to participate in a beauty pageant but also to be able to do any kind of work in society," she said.

The 67th annual pageant will be held in Bangkok in December.

When Montezuma, 25, decided to take part in the Miss Panama beauty contest to become a candidate for Miss Universe, controversy and bullying ensued on social media, she said.

People questioned her Indigenous heritage and where she was born and lived, she said this week.

Related Stories Sept. 3, 2018 This Law Student Beauty Queen Will Be the First to Compete in Miss England Finals Wearing a Hijab

"Panama wasn't ready to accept an Indigenous woman to take part in the competition," Montezuma said.

"This has shown that we should also be included in all spheres of society, and in all types of competitions," she added. "The pageant has been a platform for inclusiveness in the country."

She grew up in a remote and impoverished rural community in western Panama with no internet or mobile phone reception.

Against the odds Montezuma went to the capital, Panama City, an 8-hour drive away, to get a university education. There she said she faced discrimination and prejudice from other students.

Related Stories Aug. 30, 2018 Thomson Reuters Foundation US Open Accused of Sexism After Warning Player for Baring Her Bra

"They'd look at me and say for being Indigenous, she doesn't have the same abilities that we have," Montezuma said, a food science and technology graduate.

Indigenous people make up more than 10% of Panama's population of 4 million.

While Panama has laws to protect indigenous culture and collective land rights, nearly 9 in every 10 Indigenous people live in poverty, a problem the United Nations described in a 2014 report as "alarming."

Ensuring Indigenous girls get educated is a key challenge facing the community, Montezuma said.

In 2007, Panama introduced a programme to promote bilingual education in Indigenous communities for children to learn in both Spanish and their native languages.

Related Stories Aug. 29, 2018 Thomson Reuters Foundation The End of China's Two-Child Policy Could Help Curb Human Trafficking

But Indigenous children from the Ngobe Bugle community, especially girls, go to school on average for less than four years. That is half of the national average.

"Many Indigenous women don't study, but I did want to study," said Montezuma, adding she was supported by her parents. "You have to make a lot effort to be able to overcome the obstacles and to advance."

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota. Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)