On Saturday, a most unusual beauty queen was crowned in Botswana. The new "Miss HIV Stigma-Free" beat 13 other contestants for the title. Dressed in traditional cowhide skirts, with porcupine quills adorning their hair, 14 singing young women parade across the stage at a luxury hotel. This is the 'traditional dress' part of the contest, to be followed by an 'evening gown' competition.
It looks for all the world like a beauty pageant, but it is not, at least not in the usual sense. These women are being judged in large part on their knowledge of HIV/AIDS, its treatment and related issues. And the only women competing for the title of Miss HIV Stigma-Free are either HIV-positive themselves, or have a close relative with the virus.
Finding young women who meet those criteria is, unfortunately, easier in Botswana than anywhere else on earth. The country has the highest HIV infection rate in the world, with about 38 percent of adults infected.
The goal of the contest, as its name implies, is to fight the stigma that continues to surround AIDS in Botswana. Two HIV-positive contestants, Malebogo Mogwaketse and Cynthia Leshomo, say they entered the pageant to show the world they are just like everyone else. "I want them to see that even if you are HIV positive, you can look sharp! You can look beautiful," said Ms. Mogwaketse.
"The thing is I just want to break stigma, that is the main thing," added Ms. Leshomo. "People think when we are HIV positive there is nothing we can do, we are just positive, the only thing we are waiting for is death. So I just want to show people that we can do whatever the normal person can do."
The organizers view Miss HIV Stigma-Free as not just a contest, but as an opportunity to educate the people of Botswana about AIDS. On the day of the competition, the women took part in a workshop on stigma and discrimination, in which they shared their own stories. The pageant included dinner and a group discussion, and it went on until two in the morning. Announcing the final results, exhausted contest judge Sarah Masale said choosing the winner was a particularly difficult job.
"Particularly difficult in the sense that this is not our usual beauty pageant," she explained. "This is a beauty pageant with a difference. They do not necessarily need somebody with three-meter-long legs and eyes as big as mine. But they need an ambassador, they need somebody who can help them achieve their mission."
Few people argued that the winner, 31-year-old Kgalalelo Ntsepe, was necessarily the most beautiful woman in the room. But the judges were looking for courage and commitment, and Ms. Ntsepe has those in ample supply. She tested positive for HIV two years ago and has gone public with her status. She now counsels other young people at the AIDS support center that sponsored the contest.
As Miss HIV Stigma-Free, she plans to encourage all the young people of Botswana and other African countries to get tested, because she remembers how hard it was for her. "I went to the testing center twice," said Ms. Ntsepe. "You know, it was very difficult to go in! I go in on the third time, it was the time when I go for HIV test."
When Ms. Ntsepe went for her HIV test, she was already seriously ill with full-blown AIDS. In many other African countries, she would probably be dead by now. But Ms. Ntsepe is lucky because Botswana was the first country in Africa to make the AIDS drugs known as anti-retrovirals available free to every citizen.
Unlike many other countries, including neighboring South Africa, the easy availability of treatment in Botswana means someone who tests positive here can actually get help. "I would just say again I am proud of the government because of supplying us freely with the medication," she said. "So I encourage people to go for HIV tests so they can know their status. So if they are HIV positive, they can go into the government's program."
Since starting the medications two years ago, Ms. Ntsepe has gained 37 kilograms and become once again a vibrant, healthy-looking young woman.
And now, she has also become Miss HIV Stigma Free 2003. She has won a set of bedroom furniture and a crown made of red and white flowers. She has also won the respect and admiration of her fellow contestants, many of whom view her as an older sister.
But make no mistake, the other young ladies plan to be back next year, trying to win the title for themselves.