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Uganda's Miss Young Positive Beauty Pageant Aims to Kill the Stigma around HIV

Tryphena Natukunda

The winner is expected to be an amabassader for spreading HIV awareness, and they've already made incredible strides. 

Africa has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world, according to the World Health Organization. The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS states that in Uganda alone, 7.1% of adults between the ages of 15 and 49 are HIV-positive. But the stigma remains toxic.


Since 2014, one beauty pageant in Uganda has been trying to kill the stigma around HIV by crowning one young lady and one young man as Miss and Mr. “Young Positive” to encourage others living with the virus, and to show their country the dangers of discrimination, reports AP.


Tryphena Natukunda, 18, is the latest Miss Young Positive and what an example she leads. AP reports that as a young girl, her mother told her not to take her antiretroviral meds in front of people as it might invite judgment. But Natukunda wanted to live openly in spite of the stigma.


“If my mother was not with me, I couldn’t go any place where they didn’t know my status,” she recalled. “What we used to fear was people seeing me taking my drugs and then asking, ‘What are those drugs for?’”


Natukunda isn’t the only one living in fear. In East Africa, the fear of stigma is rampant among HIV-positive people. Many Ugandans view promiscuity or an irresponsible lifestyle as the source of a diagnosis, thus prompting shame and judgment. As a result, people do not want to get tested because they don’t want to be seen anywhere near a clinic, HIV-positive mothers choose to breastfeed their babies in public, exposing them to HIV, out of fear being suspected. And the rates continue to climb.


“In Uganda, many young people die not because they do not take their medicine,” Lovinka Nakayiza of the Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV & AIDS, the organizers of the pageant, said to AP. “Our family members discriminate against us because they think HIV moves on our faces when we touch their cups, when we talk to them.”


Recently, South Africa has served as a prominent example by supplying free antiretroviral therapy to everyone living with HIV through their health care system. While the Ugandan government continues to persuade people to get tested, which has worked in many ways since the prevalence rate has gone down since the 1990s, the stigma still overwhelms the cultural aesthetic.


Miss Young Positive is expected to be somewhat of an ambassador in spreading HIV awareness. Last year’s winner, Robinah Babirye, traveled to schools and public forums to encourage those living with HIV and remind others that HIV should never be used to promote shame or fear.


“Most of the young people that I have met have seen me as an inspiration, have seen me as an example, and that I am proud of,” Babirye said to AP. “Through talking and relating with young people living with HIV, I have empowered young people and made them positive about life.”


Natukunda clearly has heavy shoes to fill, but her passion for spreading awareness and inspiring other young HIV positive people to live openly surely makes her one of Uganda’s greatest (and most beautiful) hope in killing HIV stigma. 

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