Ugandans using inner beauty to fight HIV/AIDS
Energetic beauty contest for young people living with HIV/AIDS aims to beat stigma, empower sufferers
With local music blaring from loudspeakers, the audience cheers on as 20 young people -- both male and female -- take to the stage, showcasing their creative and casual fashion styles.
But this is no ordinary beauty contest; a Ugandan network for young people living with HIV/AIDS is using the event to promote awareness about the disease.
Dressed in a black top and black trousers with green banana leaves wrapped around her, Nassaka Annet walks onto the stage with one hand on her waist as she steps briskly to the beat of the music. The 20-year-old was born with HIV/AIDS but only became aware of her condition at the age of nine.
Uganda has an HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of 7.3 percent. According to the Uganda Aids Commission 1.5 million Ugandans are living with HIV but only 43 percent of those on treatment actually get viral load services.
The HIV epidemic in Uganda continues to disproportionately affect young women. A 2013 study by the Uganda Aids Commission indicated an HIV prevalence among young people aged 15-24 estimated at 4.2 percent for women and 2.4 percent for men.
In the face of such challenges, campaigners are always looking for new ways to fight the disease.
Program director Niwagaba Nicholas told Anadolu Agency: “What we are looking for is not how they dress and look; we are looking for inner beauty and what they can do with it."
Judges' questions are centered on testing the contestant's confidence when facing stigma.
Sixteen-year-old Nyacheria Roselyn from Tororo district in Eastern Uganda -- who won the YPlus beauty pageant -- told Anadolu Agency she discovered her status while still in school: “My mom constantly took me to the hospital to see the doctor but she never told me why I was always on medication.
“During one of the visits I asked the doctor, who told me the truth. It hurt but I later got used to my status."
- 'Only their blood is infected, not their mind'
According to AVERT, a Ugandan AIDS charity, the issues affecting young women and adolescent girls include “gender-based violence such as sexual abuse and a lack of access to education, social protection, health services and information about how they cope with these inequities and injustices".
In 2015 the Commission also identified the YPlus beauty pageant as one of the best innovations in the HIV response system.
Fresh from her turn on the stage, Nassaka told Anadolu Agency her mother was already gone. Nassaka lived with her stepmother and father who later died in 2004. Living in misery she was beaten by her stepmother:
“As she beat me she would say: 'From now on you don't have to go to school because the person who used to pay your fees has died.'"
Luckily for Nassaka she got financial support from Baylor Uganda, a nonprofit organization that provides child-centered and adolescent HIV/AIDS services. “When my stepmother learnt of this, she would purposely ensure I miss school, which affected my performance," Nassaka said.
“When I got home, they would throw away the leftover food into the dustbin so I couldn't eat," she added.
An uncle who learned of her mistreatment decided to secretly give her money to pay for her school transportation: “My stepmom started accusing me of sleeping with men to get the money, so one evening I went and stood in the middle of highway but I was pulled off it. I just wanted to die."
Baylor Uganda started a search for her relatives and eventually found Nassaka's aunt, who took her in. At peace at her new home, Nassaka said she was able to complete both primary and secondary school and went on to graduate with a diploma in counseling and guiding.
As a contestant in the YPlus beauty pageant, Nassaka says her main goal is to help young people accept their status and stick to their prescribed drug regime: “I want to create awareness and help young people accept their situation; they need to know that it's only their blood that is infected with the virus and not their mind."
Prior to the pageant Niwagaba says they equip contestants with advocacy skills and an ability to develop innovation.
“What we are looking for is a multiplier effect through these ambassadors in the different regions in Uganda and enable them to articulate issues that affect their sexual and reproductive health."
The contestants are chosen from the Northern, Central, Western and Eastern parts of the country.
Kentusi Stella, Executive Director of the National Forum of People Living with HIV Networks in Uganda, noted that many children are not supported when told about their HIV-positive status:
“They keep asking questions such as: 'Why me? Why not other children?' and most do not adhere to their treatment because they don't understand why they have to keep taking medicine."
She applauds the beauty pageant, saying it showcases that one can live with HIV and it's not the end of the world.
However, she stresses: “We need to focus a lot of our effort on our prevention methods and interventions, so that those who are born with HIV are able to live with the virus and not spread it."
Niwagaba is confident that if they continue with the HIV beauty pageants, it will help realize UNAIDS' “90-90-90" ambitious treatment target.
It aims at ensuring that, by 2020, 90 percent of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy, 90 percent of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression and 90 percent of people living with HIV will know their status.