As Uganda struggles through the coronavirus pandemic and its socio-economic ruins, another virus, HIV/AIDS is tapping from ignorance, fear and stigma to undermine the nation’s efforts to contain it.
The Uganda Aids Commission — an agency established by the government in 1992 to buffer efforts against the disease — estimates that about 1.4 million people are living with the Human Immunodeficient Virus. The virus ranks high among the country’s youthful population, and so is the discrimination.
“A study we have done has showed that stigma is high among young people. Those that have come out have been stigmatized by their peers … we are trying to engage them in all forums through our youth friendly model,” Explains Mr. Charles Ofwono, the Commissioner for Youth at Uganda Aids Commission.
Diverse in manifestation but invariably damaging, stigma is a scarecrow. Analysts say that it prevents people with HIV from seeking life-saving medical care. Its bedrock, social harassment, is a known precursor for emotional breakdown and suicidal thoughts.
Ms. Gloria Nawanyaga, 26, learned that she was living with the disease at 11. From that point until recently, hers has been a tale of fear and dejection born out of the social profiling.
“My mother frequently took us (I and my sibling) to hospital to get medicine. One time, while at a family outing, she asked me what I knew about people living with HIV …. at school, we had been taught that HIV means death, and that’s how I replied,” Ms. Nawanyaga explains.
As the pandemic strolls through the fourth decade, the World Health Organization (WHO) has called for new strategies to ensure that stigma reduction becomes a routine function of HIV treatment and prevention programs.
Uganda Network of Young People living with HIV/AIDs (UNYPA), a youth-centered community organization has been engaging young people living with HIV in the country to sow hope.
For close to eight years, the group has been organizing an annual beauty pageant, known as Mr. and Miss Uganda Y+ which pinnacles outstanding young men and women living with the virus and groom anti-stigma emissaries.
Ms. Nawanyaga took the Y+ crown in 2017, because of her vigorous campaign to encourage other young Ugandans to face the scourge while living productively.
“I have inspired other fellows living with a HIV positive life and have witnessed them becoming big people. That is a milestone for me.” Ms. Nawanyaga explains adding that Ms Uganda Y+ has been an honoring obligation to carry.
According to Mr. Isaac Lekdyang, the Executive Director at UNYPA, the pageant is a unique campaign model promoting beauty with “Zero discrimination”. He started this initiative in 2014 after one of his friends was barred from participating in a beauty contest because of her HIV status.
“The Y+ model turns-around stigma into pride to promote inclusiveness and acceptability of HIV+ persons in society and focuses on beauty and not the challenges young people living with HIV face … therefore enabling young people living with HIV to become champions in the fight against stigma and discrimination,” Lekdyang explains
The pageant is now a popular display of color and splendor in Kampala, with all the trappings of beauty pageants. In 2020-2021, 171 participants took part in the competition in regional auditions. After the auditions 18 finalists were shortlisted, and 6 top winners crowned.
Beyond the winners, other participants are mentored into ambassadors of change. The envoys are then commissioned to participate in community dialogues, national and world calendar events in their communities and on national level.
According to Mr. Lekdyang, the initiative seeks to antagonize the social bedrock of stigma which has forced some families to write off and “deny support to young people living with HIV.”
“In this sense, they create unfavourable environment for people living HIV positive life which is wrong. This therefore hinders them to take their ARVs in time because of fear of being seen by others,” he says.
Just as misinformation and fake news manifested itself during the covid-19 pandemic and undermined several efforts against the virus, Lekdyang notes that it has sowed seeds of animosity.
He notes that young people cannot identify the right health or sexual reproductive information from fake news especially on social media platforms.
“For many young people, their biggest sexual reproductive health need is information … therefore, lacking support in terms of accurate information limits our impact and responses to the fight against stigma,” Mr. Lekdyang concludes.
Here is what people sampled in Kampala think about HIV