From Stigma to Shine: Miss Y+ Inspires Ugandan Youth Living with HIV to Lead a Positive Life
November 30th, 2019 | Story
November 30th, 2019 | Story
Rotten avocado. Walking coffin. These are only two of the many names Sharon used to be called growing up, where bullying was part of her daily life. “Outcast, zombie. The names they would call me made me feel like a real zombie. People in the village would always separate me from other children, not let me play. That would make me feel so bad. I wanted to give up. I was very ready to give up. I thought I was worthless; I have no use to live.”
Sharon—now 22 years old and a peer educator with USAID RHITES-N, Lango’s Young People and Adolescent Peer Support (YAPS) program—was born with the HIV virus. Her parents, both HIV positive, died when she was a baby, and she was raised by her grandmother in a small village in Loro Sub-county in Northern Uganda.
Faced with stigma in school and in the community, Sharon spent most of her childhood in what she describes as living hell. “I remember flushing my drugs down the toilet one day. I had accepted to die. I just wanted to follow my parents because I didn’t understand how they could leave me behind in this hell.”
Constant counseling at Lira Regional Referral Hospital’s ART clinic and a change of school, where the school nurse supervised her ARV intake, kept Sharon going. But it was peer support through social media that turned her life around a year ago. “I sat down and started looking for people who are like me on Facebook. When I found that there were many other young people like me out there with HIV, it was a very big shock. I thought, so I’m not alone! All these young people looking healthy and strong, looking good, even dancing—they are also living with HIV.”
Out of all the connections Sharon made on the internet, it was a beauty queen that inspired her most—Miss Y+ 2017. Her confidence and pride living with HIV made Sharon want to reach for the stars.
Every year, the Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV/AIDS (UNYPA) hosts the Y+ Pageant geared towards empowering youth and ending stigma and discrimination around HIV.
And so Sharon had found herself auditioning for Miss Y+ 2018/2019, sliding through the regional competitions, and making it through to the national level in Uganda’s capital, Kampala.
“At national level, I became the first runner up, which means number one after the queen. They were calling my name and I just broke down and praised God. I opened my eyes and found cameras everywhere. I just started celebrating with tears. It was a very big joy for me.”
Ever since Sharon has dedicated her time to fighting stigma and giving hope to young people who share a similar experience. “I have decided to spend my entire life making sure that my peers are inspired, making sure that they also adhere well to their medication and have a suppressed viral load because that is very key to a person living with HIV.”
Watch Sharon’s story
Twice a week Sharon attends the anti-retroviral treatment (ART) clinic for adolescents at Lira Regional Referral Hospital, giving motivational talks and encouraging fellow youth to take their medicines, and most importantly, never give up. Sharon’s viral load has been suppressed for the last year and a half, and she uses herself as an example of adherence to other adolescents during counseling sessions.
Through RHITES-N, Lango’s YAPS program Sharon was trained to be a peer educator and eventually a trainer of trainers. Now an ambassador for positive living, Sharon feels proud, strong, and beautiful—inside and out.
I am not trying to beautify HIV, no! HIV is real. And those who are negative should stay negative. But if you are positive, you should lead a positive life. My purpose here is to make those who are affected by HIV not to feel worthless. Your status doesn’t define you.”