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Miss Universe candidates tell their stories—of being abused and getting their lives back

By Tanya Lara Published May 15, 2021 2:42 pm

They’re not just gorgeous, they’re survivors too. These four amazing women talk about overcoming abuses with a calm that can only come from strength and years of healing.

In a conversation with reigning Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa, four Miss Universe candidates talked about abuse, with one of them nearly raped when she was 15, feeling ashamed of being victimized, finding their voice and finally overcoming their traumas.

Indeed, beauty pageants have become a platform to empower women around the world, not just to dream big but to get up from the everyday struggle and pick up the pieces of their lives after traumatic experiences.

Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa leads the conversation on gender-based abuse with candidates who were themselves victims of abuse. Photos courtesy of Miss Universe Organization

Miss Finland Vivi Altonen, who has done work with the United Nations in her country on a campaign for women to be brave and empowered, said that when she was 19 and living in Mozambique she was sexually assaulted.

It was a traumatizing experience that she didn’t tell anyone until that point when she said she was done being afraid and didn’t “want it to affect her life anymore.”

Miss Belize Iris Salguero was only 17 when she was in an abusive relationship. She said, “I was a very insecure person at that time and it took me into a dark place. That person put so much negative ideas into my mind, that no one would ever love me.”

Miss Finland Vivi Altonen

She added the reason she fell in love with pageantry was that it gave “women a platform to tell these stories, and it’s very important to share these stories. I look back at the young lady that I was, and I had nobody in that moment where I could say she went through this, she overcame this, and I can do that too.”

Tunzi said, “When we tell our stories and people look at you, you are giving them permission to do the same even if you might not know you are doing that for them. You are role models.”

Miss Haiti Eden Berandoive 

When Miss Haiti Eden Berandoive was 15, she was attacked by her teacher. “After that I struggled a lot to survive. I was in the hospital…and my parents said I can’t go to school again.”

Another incident traumatized her further. A policeman nearly raped her in her own home. “He came in my house, in my room. I didn’t say anything to my family because I was afraid. I didn’t want to talk to no one because I didn’t want them to think I was lying. This is my first time I am able to talk about my story.”

Berandoive’s experience with two persons in authority who attacked her drills home what abuse cases around the world have shown—that the abusers are often people women know or are part of their lives. And this leads to fears that they would not be believed if they reported the abuse.

Miss Great Britain Jeanette Akua pointed out, “Nothing emboldens perpetrators more than a legal system that willfully ignores these heinous crimes against women. We often think that perpetrators are these foreign entities when they are very much ingrained in our everyday lives.”

Great Britain Jeanette Akua

Altonen agreed. “When I was in Mozambique, nothing was done about it. It was just another day. I went to work the next day and it was just normal.”

Berandoive said, “I have a mission, she said resolutely. It’s to inspire young girls or older people to keep hope. In whatever situation you are, you can get over it.”

One more thing that her story brought to the surface is the idea that women have to be strong all the time.

Miss Belize Iris Salguero

“I am strong but I also cry when I need to cry,” Berandoive said.

Her voice was breaking a couple of times during the conversation, as if relieving in her mind painful memories.

Tunzi said, “Women don’t always have to be strong. That’s the narrative going on in the world. In South Africa we have a saying ‘You strike a woman, you strike a rock.’ I still find it a little problematic in a sense that, yes, women are strong but we’re not rocks. There are so many narratives that we need to change when it comes to this topic.”

They are queens, indeed, for our times.