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Miss HIV Stigma-Free

Greame Williams and Challiss McDonough

Botswana Crowns Miss HIV Stigma-Free
By Challiss McDonough



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...

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