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HIV-positive women fight back

HIV-positive women in Botswana paraded down the catwalk  in a bid to raise awareness of the condition.

HIV-positive women in Botswana paraded down the catwalk in evening dress and traditional wear last week in a bid to raise awareness of the condition. Miss HIV Stigma Free was Botswana's third competition, and was held at a glamorous resort on the edge of the capital, Gaborone.

All HIV-positive, the women were judged primarily on their courage and spirit - qualities as invisible as the disease which is weakening their bodies.

Attitudes towards Aids are changing very slowly, with some of the women hiding their status from their own families for years.

The judges asked them how they can help to reduce the stigma that surrounds Aids. One of the contestants, Anna Ratotsisi said: "Look at me. I'm attractive. I'm HIV-positive. What's the big deal?".

Ratotsisi received a warm applause, but the loudest cheers were for 32-year-old Cynthia Leshomo who has been HIV-positive for five years. She urged the crowd: "Let's fight the stigma associated with Aids, but not people with Aids."

The judges decided that Cynthia was the winner, and she was crowned "Miss HIV Stigma Free 2005". She will now receive a scholarship and monthly stipend, and will spend the next year travelling across Botswana and Africa, working on projects to break down the fear and prejudice around HIV/Aids.

In the cold light of day, she admitted that the struggle against Aids in Botswana is going to be long and hard.

Botswana has one of the highest infection rates in the world. It was the first country in Africa to provide free anti-retroviral drugs (ARV).

Cynthia is one of roughly 35,000 people now receiving ARVs from the government. But it is not proving easy to change people's behaviour. In particular, Cynthia worries about Botswana men. "They're not in this fight against HIV/Aids," she said.

"If you tell your boyfriend you are HIV-positive, he just leaves you, and gets another girlfriend. So I don't think we are going to win this war unless we change our attitudes."

Cynthia's mother, Lucy, a retired primary school teacher agreed. When she first heard that Cynthia was HIV-positive, Lucy said that she cried. But she soon realised that with ARVs, her daughter had an excellent chance of carrying on living for many years.

She said: "Botswana can defeat this stigma if people in high positions can come out publicly, before a crowd, and admit they have this disease.

"There is a belief that this is just a disease for low class people, but there are well-educated people suffering from the disease who don't want to come out."

2nd September 2008

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