In the Ugandan capital of Kampala, activists, reproductive health specialists and some very beautiful people got together to change how the country views HIV and AIDS. A beauty pageant for HIV+ youth, billed as Beauty with Zero Discrimination, brought reproductive health groups such as Marie Stopes International and the HIV Bible Project to a swanky ballroom in one of Kampala’s premier hotels.
Uganda has recently received international condemnation over the passage of the HIV Control and Prevention Act. The new law outlaws the transmission of HIV and in some cases, forces mandatory testing. However, it was in the midst of this attitude that HIV activists felt the need to celebrate those who are living well with HIV.
The contestants, who were between 16-25 years of age, included young men and women. Portions of the pageant were dedicated to fashion, talent and a question and answer session. In between these acts, leaders from Uganda’s HIV and AIDS outreach communities, as well as local celebrities, came up to sing, speak and advocate on behalf of the cause. The crowd was made of heavyweights, including the guest of honor, former Vice President of Uganda Dr. Speciosa Wandira-Kazibwe.
To proudly get on stage, show your face and display your name when you’re HIV+ in Uganda might seem like a daunting task. However, you’d never know if you just looked at their smiling faces. Youthful, healthy and gorgeous, they stood proudly in immaculately tailored suits and stylish dresses.
One contestant announced, “I used to get sick as a child when I didn’t take my medication…but now you can see I take it well and am very healthy now.”
Another told the story of when her friends at university found her pills. She decided to come clean to them about her HIV+ status. What followed was a rash of discrimination against her. The contestant broke down in tears as she recounted her experience. “Discrimination over this hurts,” she said, “and it is never okay”.
For the talent portion some sang, some danced, some recited poems and monologues on what being HIV+ meant to them. A focus on taking medication and always engaging in safe sex was one of the major themes of the evening.
When the former vice president walked on stage, she was a ball of fire. “You are all beautiful, and handsome,” she told them. She went on to tell the contestants that there was no shame in their sexualities. “Sex is the most pleasurable thing you can ever have,” she said, describing her own personal battle with promoting condom usage.
When Dr. Speciosa was a representative for women in government, “a youth,” as she put it, she struggled with the media when she openly promoted condom usage. The Church and Mother’s Unions as well as numerous local newspapers castigated her as promoting promiscuity.
Yet Dr. Speciosa Wandira-Kazibwe has never been deterred by those who’ve tried to shame her. As her speech ended and music played, she danced among the contestants, waving a string of condoms over her head.
Representatives from other HIV activist groups also gave speeches which touched on the recent passage of the HIV Act. Vinand Nantulya, the Chairman of the Ugandan AIDS Commission, spoke both angrily and passionately when discussing it. “Criminalizing HIV and AIDS is wrong, unacceptable and nonsensical,” he told the crowd, “we will not let them get away with it.”
An art auction followed, which raised money for a Y+ Youth Center, a place where HIV+ youth can go to seek counseling, friendship and community. More than 1.5 million Ugandan shillings were raised during the auction.
Then, of course, came the crowning. The winners, 19-year-old Sharifa Nalugo Kyomukama and 20-year-old Ronald Juan Kaganda, were taken up on stage to receive their award. Crowned Mr. and Miss Y+ they will be working as ambassadors for a new campaign focused on spreading awareness of HIV and driving down infection rates.
Sharifa, who had cried on stage when she spoke about being discriminated against, beamed as she looked over the crowd. Her, Ronald and the rest of the contestants then lined up for a photo with the former vice president before the crowd devolved into revelry and dancing.
The Y+ Beauty Pageant will be back next year, ensuring that the HIV+ youth in Uganda will have a voice and a platform from which to celebrate their lives, while fighting stigma and discrimination.
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