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AIDS - Going Public In Uganda - 2003-12-23

Openly admitting you have AIDS, or “going public,” is not easy. But one prominent military man in Uganda did, and he continues to encourage anybody with the disease to follow his example. Rubaramira Ruranga is a major in the Uganda People’s Defense Forces. He’s also the coordinator of the National Guidance and Empowerment Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS in Uganda.

Major Ruranga says the more open people are about having HIV/AIDS, the more likely that stigma and discrimination will decline. Major Ruranga says he became infected from having sex. He decided to go public because there was a great deal of misinformation and confusion about the disease. He publicly declared he was HIV positive on World AIDS Day in 1993. His intent was to help others by giving accurate information and by encouraging other prominent people with HIV to go public as well.

:The stigma about HIV and AIDS still rages on in this country. It is more important among the highly educated people of our society, because HIV has always been looked at as a disease of the wretched of the earth -- the prostitutes, the soldiers, the poor people. So, the intellectuals of our society would not want to be identified with this thing which is looked at as a disease of the reckless, irresponsible people. But the point is, there is no bracket in our society, which has not been attacked by HIV/AIDS."

The major says that because of his prominence, "almost everybody knows me in this country, in fact I’m more known than even ministers in this country."

people come to him for advice and counseling. He is a “public person” — in this case meaning he’s credible, well known, and has integrity. He encourages other prominent figures who are infected to take the lead.

"These people who are well educated would help in planning more strategies and encourage more people living with HIV and AIDS to come out. So certainly, yes, I would encourage many, and I have some who have already come out."

The major gives two examples – one, a woman who’s on the board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and an Italian Catholic clergyman who works with World Vision.

Major Ruranga says his organization stresses “guidance and empowerment” as tools to fight stigma and discrimination – especially in the workforce.

"If any employer discovered you had HIV, they would quietly, but surely, get rid of you … so we had to organize ourselves and talk and demand that our rights should be recognized. Today we have reduced that kind of situation … there is a lot of work that is being done to improve the workplace policy and HIV, and all this is because of an advocacy that we’ve been making in respect of the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS."

The Major says a UN principle states that the only legitimate reason for someone with HIV/AIDS to lose their job is that the person can no longer perform the work.

Major Ruranga also says African leadership is important in dealing with the disease, which affects a range of concerns far beyond national health.

"Just as President Mandela said, HIV is not just a disease anymore; it’s a human rights issue."

He says African leaders must do more than support prevention; they must provide treatment. If not, he says, Africa will continue losing manpower. At the very least, he says, that could damage economies.

Major Ruranga says his admission of being HIV positive helps all people with AIDS come to terms with the disease. For example, he says it encourages getting treatment, living with a positive outlook, and fighting depression that can shorten one’s will to live.