“The contest doesn’t focus on looks, but on a young positive being a role model for other young people with HIV, on being able to advocate for the needs of young people , and to increase acceptance and understanding of young people living with HIV in society."
We must prioritize approaches that will help to get young people to know their HIV status and those found HIV positive to be initiated on treatment immediately.
These were the opening remarks by the UNAIDS country director, Dr. Karusa Kirangu-Gikonyo, as she officiated at the launch of the 7th edition of the Y+ Beauty Pageant 2020.
Young people living with HIV under their umbrella organization, Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV/AIDS (UNYPA) last Friday (September 25, 2020), launched the Y+ (young positive) Beauty Pageant at Serena Hotel in the most exhilarating scientific way, themed "Changing The Narrative."
The distinctive campaign is an annual event aimed at fighting stigma and discrimination, as well as addressing the structural drivers of gender-based violence and other HIV/SRHR related issues against young people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS.
The campaign has been running for the last seven years, serving as a platform to young men and women (16 to 25 years) living with HIV to become voices to the voiceless, pillars of boldness and strength to those still afraid of HIV testing.
They share testimonies of hope that acquiring HIV is not the end of life.
Changing the narrative, according to UNYPA executive director, Nicholas Niwagaba, is intended to paint a picture of a young HIV positive person that he is not defined by his HIV status, but to see him as a formidable leader who lives a positive and productive life and is able to contribute and build the economy.
HIV and AIDS continues to be one of the major Sexual and Reproductive Health issues facing young people in Uganda, and the HIV risk among young people is aggravated by the fact that most of them are having their sexual debut at an early age of 15 years.
Teenage pregnancy is still disproportionally high at 25% in the country (UDHS, 2018).
Amidst the fear of COVID-19, AIDS is still a leading killer in Uganda and the world.
What the current pandemic has done is to threaten to reverse the accomplishments that have been made in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Uganda.
As of 2018, we had 1.4 million Ugandans living with HIV and lost 23,000 people to AIDS related illnesses.
Uganda has the highest percentage people between the ages of 15 and 25 living with HIV&AIDS in East Africa.
3.7% of females and 2.4% of males in the age group live with HIV in Uganda, which also ranks ninth in Africa.
Uganda is followed by Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi, according to 2018 World Population Data Sheet.
Shockingly, 575 adolescents and young women between 15 to 24 years get infected with HIV on a weekly basis (MOH report,); they get infected much more than others.
These are not girls born with HIV but newly infected every week! When they clock 15 years they become vulnerable to getting HIV.
The risk of HIV among young people in Uganda is also heightened by Gender-Based Violence (including sexual abuse).
Young Ugandan women who have experienced intimate partner violence are 50% more likely to have acquired HIV than women who had not experienced violence (UAC, 2018).
Yet the level of knowledge on HIV prevention and access to sexual education among young women and men in Uganda is still telling.
In 2018, only 38.5% of young women and men aged 15-24 could correctly identify ways of preventing the sexual transmission of HIV and rejected major misconceptions about HIV transmission, according to UNAIDS, 2018 report.
This, according to Niwagaba, is one of the reasons they conjured the novel concept of the Y+ Beauty Pageant to celebrate beauty with zero stigma and discrimination, zero new HIV infections and zero AIDS-related deaths.
"The contest doesn't focus on looks, but on a young positive being a role model for other young people with HIV, on being able to advocate for the needs of young people , and to increase acceptance and understanding of young people living with HIV in society," he says.
The Y+ pageant model in Uganda is now a nationally and internationally recognized and awarded model for a successful fight against HIV related stigma and discrimination, increasing awareness on HIV prevention, though stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and society's attitude to it is still a big concern.
The beauty pageant has so far bred 889 ambassadors who are part of a generation of young people living with HIV, youth champions advocating for and working towards an HIV stigma-free Uganda.
The campaign shall be spread out in three stages for the month of October: for regional auditions-traversing; central-Kampala, eastern-Kamuli, western-Kabale and northern-Kwania to identify 2020 ambassadors.
This will be followed by the boot camp, and a grand finale event on Friday 20th November 2020.
The passionate arrival of 2019/2020 Mr. and Miss Y+ Micheal Ssenyonga and Esther Kabashamba added colour to the occasion attracting loud ululation from the audience.
Kabashamba is a student at Makerere University, second year offering bachelors of commerce.
She echoed that the cardinal purpose of the Y+ Beauty pageant is fighting stigma among people living with HIV.
Regrettably, COVID- 19 has worsened stigma towards people living with HIV/AIDS.
"When I was contesting to become Miss YPLUS ambassador, I was shy, I developed cold feet to come out openly to show my face, yet I was a peer educator and counselor. But when I became Miss YPLUS, it gave me a platform to de-stigmatize HIV in the community," she said.
WHAT OTHERS SAY
UNAIDS country director, Dr. Karusa Kirangu-Gikonyo
Uganda has been a leader in the HIV fight and continues to lead. Little wonder that Uganda has achieved the 90-90-90 strategy this year.
I am also convinced ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 is possible, going by the current achievements.
Many people, including the young ones, are at the helm of correlating HIV response in this country.
Adekemi Ndieli, deputy country representative of UN WOMEN (Who was the key note speaker)
We urgently need to address social structural and human rights barriers especially gender inequalities and violence on girls and young women that continue to predispose many to HIV infections.
Dr. Dan Byamukama from Uganda AIDS Commission (UAC).
We are committed to ending AIDS by 2030, not only at UAC but as a country. We are making good progress in the 90, 90, 90 targets, and for the second and third 90s we have gone beyond 90.
However, there are some areas where we have not moved very well, for example, in the area of fighting stigma and discrimination. We cannot win the war if we still have challenges of stigma.
Also, we don't have 100 percent access to medication. Together with stakeholders, we need to pull our socks. I am happy if we have these young people coming out to share their stories, it is motivating.
Miss Quin Abenakyo executive director, Quin Abenakyo Foundation
These young people living with HIV can be described as heroes. They are giving a human face to HIV, and we should applaud them because it is not easy. They are using the beauty pageant to share their inspiring stories which subsequently inspire especially those living in denial.
Uganda is probably the second African country to organize such a beauty contest for young people living with HIV, courtesy of UNYPA, since 2014, meaning this is going to be their 7th edition.
Botswana, one of the countries in sub-Sahara Africa with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate was the first to have organized a beauty pageant for HIV positive contestants in 2000, and it has since organized over 30 such beauty contests to help reduce the HIV stigma.
UNYPA is a youth led and youth serving organization coordinating meaningful engagement of young people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS in Uganda in the national, regional and global HIV/AIDS response.
With a membership of over 50,000 young people, UNYPA works to implement National Evidence -driven Advocacy programs that address HIV/AIDS related stigma and discrimination, gender inequalities and promote young people's empowerment and universal access to integrated SRHR and HIV/AIDS information and service.
UNYPA is driven by the needs of young people living with HIV and implements an evidence informed national programme and advocacy for young people living with HIV to lead healthy and productive lives.
By Elvis Basudde, Violet Nabatanzi and Juliet Waiswa