Uganda stages beauty pageants to fight stigma of AIDS (dpa German Press Agency)

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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