Nearly one-third of Uganda's new HIV infections occur among 15-to-25-year-olds, who say that although there has been progress, stigma is still a problem. To raise awareness ahead of World AIDS Day on December 1, Uganda holds an annual fashion show and beauty pageant for young people infected with the virus that causes AIDS and calls them the Young Positives.
The pomp, dance and fashion were on display November 22 at the pageant finale in Kampala. But the aim of this annual show is not just to display beauty and talent.
"You're HIV-positive — you're a moving dead body, or you're promiscuous," said Nicholas Niwagaba, who is with the pageant organizer, the Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV and AIDS. "We are trying to change that narrative to say that young people living with HIV or people living with HIV are human beings. We want the community to accept them."
Education on HIV prevention is also a key part of the Young Positives pageant, which displays condoms and promotes safe sex.
UNAIDS says about 6 percent of Ugandans are HIV-positive, one of the highest rates in East Africa. But there has been progress in Uganda's fight against HIV. AIDS-related deaths dropped by nearly 60% in 2018, UNAIDS said.
Reaching young teens and young adults is key to halting the spread of HIV, said Nelson Musoba of the Uganda AIDS Commission.
"It matters how the message is packaged and who carries this message," he said. "And the current generation — fashion, music, working with celebrities is one way to transmit the message to the young people. And we find this very attractive. You can see the attention it's generating; you can see the participation."
Nineteen-year-old tailor Timothy Kabogoza and one of his five siblings were born HIV-positive. He said he tried to keep his status a secret, but his friends found out and started pointing fingers.
"And for real, I tried to cover up that thing," he said. "But when I come back in my room, I'll be like, 'My God, this guy has said something, oh, my God.' "
But participation in the Young Positives beauty pageant boosted Kabogoza's confidence. And, at this year's contest, he took second place.
Kabogoza said he wants to pass on an upbeat message to other HIV-positive youth: Take your antiretroviral medication — something he acknowledges he has not always been consistent about — and stop the self-shaming.