Uganda stages beauty pageants to fight stigma of AIDS

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Uganda is known for its high HIV infection rate. But the country has found a new weapon in the fight against AIDS: beauty contests.

Uganda is known for its high HIV infection rate. But the country has found a new weapon in the fight against AIDS: beauty contests.

Kampala (dpa) – On the outskirts of the Ugandan capital Kampala, 31 young women and men take turns parading on a catwalk in a corrugated iron building filled with sunlight.

The youths could be appearing in any beauty contest – except that they are HIV positive.

The audience watches as the candidates, wearing black or white T-shirts, are questioned by the three-woman jury on their life goals – including how to prevent the transmission of the virus they are carrying.

On September 18, the male and female winners along with 18 others from similar regional beauty contests will participate in the national finals held at a Kampala hotel to elect Uganda’s Miss and Mister Y+, meaning youth positive.

At the final contest, participants “will wear normal clothes” created by a fashion designer, said Moses Bwire, a social worker with the Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV/AIDS (UNYPA), which organizes the contests.

“The pageant will involve catwalks and fashion, but the dresses will have to be decent,” he added, saying the Y+ beauty contest “is not about looks, but about personalities who can fight the stigma.”

“We are looking for young people who will be outstanding in controlling the spread of HIV,” Bwire said.

The winners will act as ambassadors, attending events dealing with HIV, engaging in campaigns and promoting condom use.

The pageants featuring youths aged 16 to 25 have been staged annually since 2014, following the example of Botswana, one of the African countries with the highest HIV infection rates, which launched a similar initiative in 2000.

“I have been with the AIDS virus since I was born. It is not an easy challenge to overcome,” said one of the Kampala contestants, Robina Babirye.

“We face discrimination each day. Some show it openly and others hide it,” said another, Irene Nabunya, while male entrant Sadam Kyeyune, who lost his parents to AIDS at the age of 5, said he feels “lucky that I did not die.”

Uganda was formerly known as one of the countries worst hit by HIV, with infection rates of more than 10 per cent in the 1990s.

An aggressive campaign advocating condom use and a donor-sponsored programme currently allowing nearly 700,000 AIDS patients to receive medication have cut death rates.

However, about 7 per cent of Ugandans aged between 15 and 49 years are still living with HIV, according to the United Nations agency UNAIDS.

The Health Ministry says that more than half of new infections – estimated at 137,000 in 2014 – occur among people aged up to 25 years.

“Young people … [are] one of the most sexually active segments of the population,” said Musa Bungudu, the UNAIDS representative in Uganda. “People in these age brackets are daring, adventurous and very likely to engage in reckless sex,” he added.

Prior to the national contest, the 20 regional winners will be schooled at a Lake Victoria hotel “on how to fight the AIDS stigma and handle sexual reproduction and health rights,” Bwire said.

At the contest for Miss and Mister Y+ Central Region near Kampala, some of the participants were clearly new to the world of glamour, struggling to strut correctly on the catwalk and to answer questions.

The jury finally announced the victory of two 22-year-olds, Robina Babirye and Mark Tuhaise.

On hearing her name ring through the room, Babirye – who had impressed the public with her candid words about discrimination – broke into sobs.

“People taunted me that I could not do anything since I had the AIDS virus. Now, I want to be an advocate for the voices of people who have AIDS,” she said.

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