By Nicholas Niwagaba
In a country with a turbulent political history like Uganda, one would be almost convinced that the civil wars are on record for the highest number of deaths.
However, Uganda has lost close to two million people to the HIV epidemic in a substantial period, moreover, close to 1.2 million Ugandans are currently living with HIV
The statistics around HIV show its gravity among Ugandans. As of 2016, there are 83,000 new HIV infections, (227 infections per day and 9 infections per hour), while 28,000 die of HIV related illness (77 deaths per day) every year. Young people, especially young women and girls are disproportionately affected. The UNAIDS fact sheet 2017, also reminds us that approximately 567 young people are infected with HIV in Uganda every week, and of these, 363 are girls. There are 3,100 new infections among children below 15 years, while there are 300,000 people, living with HIV, without even knowing.
In addition, another pressing issue is the continued stigma against people living with HIV. Whereas we sympathise with people suffering from different diseases, society is quite regressive to persons living with HIV which we know has no known cure yet. Messages that make people living with HIV feel ill about their life tend to sprout often leading to psychological torture, inferiority complex and fear of accessing treatment. The result is further bodily damage by HIV/AIDS which can end up suicidal. To combat these challenges, we need to create massive awareness about HIV/AIDS, using innovative means that will capture the attention of the public and drive the information home. Once this is done, people living with HIV will be more comfortable opening up so that the public is aware of the epidemic and is able to take precautionary measures to curb its spread.
The Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV (UNYPA), hinging on that status quo, decided to provide stewardship for better and meaningful participation of Young people living with HIV (YPLHIV) in Uganda at the national, regional and global HIV and AIDS response. Since 2003, UNYPA, a direct member of the National Forum of people living with HIV&AIDS (NAFOPHANU), has engaged many young people living with HIV/AIDS, with a current membership of 50,000. UNYPA is driven by the needs of young people living with HIV, and implementation is based on evidence informed by national programmes and therefore advocates for YPLHIV to live healthy and productive lives in Uganda.
UNYPA’s contribution to national programming and advocacy includes; promoting universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support, fighting stigma and discrimination among young people living with HIV, and promoting the greater involvement of young people living with HIV in the national HIV response. Among the different campaigns by UNYPA, one that is gaining a lot of attention across Uganda is the Y+ Beauty Pageant.
The Y+ Pageant is an annual campaign that is geared towards ending stigma and discrimination related to HIV. It empowers young people with knowledge and advocacy skills, which enable them to lead the fight against the stigma in their communities. It is envisioned on Beauty with Zero discrimination because young people continue to be stigmatized by their guardians, potential employers, relatives, and general public. This, in the long run affects their uptake of HIV services at health facilities, their adherence to drugs, and depression from fear to disclose. UNYPA therefore steps in to uplift the plight for all YPLHIV by working together to re-echo their voices and build a strong, creative and productive generation through this campaign.
Despite the gains we have recorded since the launch of this campaign, we have faced several challenges from persons who think our approach is not the best. However, we continue to seek ways to engage those who are against the work we do especially religious leaders to allow them a chance to learn, unlearn and re-learn the dimensions around HIV.
This year, the Y+ Beauty Pageant will kick off with an unleash, an event where a roadmap for the entire campaign will be unveiled. The unleash will be followed by the regional auditions at health facilities in the selected regions, the boot camp where all training on advocacy, life and hands-on skills will be given which will close with the Grand Finale where the overall outstanding ambassadors will be crowned.
In conclusion, the Y+ Beauty Pageant doesn’t seek to crown the most beautiful young people living with HIV&AIDS, but rather the brave, open minded, and passionate, young people who later support fellow young people to meaningfully engage and participate in programmes regardless of their HIV status.
However, it is not just the vestment of UNYPA and interventions like Y+ to raise this much-needed awareness. It is the role of government, civil society and obligation of every Ugandan to make this an issue of the past.
The writer is the executive director of the Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV (UNYPA)