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Fighting stigma of AIDS, Botswana hosts beauty pageant for HIV-positive women
( 2003-09-07 11:40) (Agencies)

Donning both shimmering evening gowns and traditional Botswana costumes of animal skin skirts and beaded necklaces, porcupine quills adorning their hair, fourteen women competed in a beauty pageant for HIV-positive women and their relatives.

Some 38 percent of Botswana's people are HIV positive, the highest infection rate in the world. Having AIDS in Botswana is often associated with shame and stigma and the organizers of Saturday's Miss. HIV Stigma Free said they hoped the contest would show the disease does not have to prevent women from being vibrant and beautiful.

Smiling widely, blowing kisses, and singing songs in the local language of Tswana, the women also shared their stories in testimonials.

Twenty-four-year old Malebogo Mongwaketse told judges and an audience of 1,000 that she was so overwhelmed at testing HIV positive that at first she contemplated suicide.

Kgalalelo Ntsepe, 31, who was crowned the winner in a long black and silver gown, spoke of the AIDS drugs that transformed her from being bone thin and sickly to again being robust and healthy. She urged others not to wait until they were at death's door to seek treatment.

``I feel honored, it's like I'm a queen,'' said Ntsepe who works as counselor for HIV-positive youth, clutching a bouquet of red and white flowers.

She said she would use her title to spread the word that HIV-positive people should be treated with respect.

``I'm going to around the country to talk to people to say that (being) an HIV-positive person does not mean you have done something wrong. You are still who you are.''

Stigma runs deep here.

Surveys in this southern African country have found that many would avoid buying produce from HIV-positive vendors and approve the removal of teachers who carry the virus that causes AIDS.

The contest's judges said they were looking for a woman of courage, sacrifice and patriotism, not merely outer beauty.

Contestants were asked a series of randomly selected questions about the disease and Botswana's efforts to combat it.

When asked why AIDS was such a major problem in Botswana, runner-up Neo Chitimbo said alcohol was a major factor. She said people often drank too much, clouding their judgment.

With one in three of adults HIV positive, Botswana's president said the country faces possible extinction and has declared war on AIDS.

The diamond rich southern African country, buoyed by multimillion dollar support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the New Jersey based drug giant Merck and Co., has launched a program to provide free AIDS drugs to all of is people _ the first wide-scale free access to AIDS drugs in Africa.

The pageant's organizer, Kesego Basha, is herself HIV positive. She said her experiences with stigma helped inspire her to create the pageant, now in its second year.

Among those who helped sponsor the pageant were the United Nations and the Botswana ministry of health.

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