Oscar Otim is Changing the Narrative from HIV Stigma to Empowerment
January 5th, 2021 | Story
January 5th, 2021 | Story
On Nov. 20, 19-year-old Oscar Otim from Lira in northern Uganda was crowned “Mr. Y+” in the Young Positives (Y+) Beauty Pageant. And despite having beauty in the name, the competition isn’t about looks. The Y+ competitive pageant attracts young positives from across Uganda to compete for the crown and fight the stigma and discrimination faced by young people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS.
Oscar bested eight other regional participants with his leadership skills, creativity, team spirit during the boot camps, his passion, and his eloquence in sharing his ideas as the crowned king. His humility and soft yet persuasive nature demonstrated that he would be able to serve young people living with HIV and draw the attention of people in positions of power to address the challenges of young people living with HIV.
Organized by Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV and supported by USAID, the pageant is held annually to create awareness about positive living among the young people with HIV. Since 2018, USAID’s RHITES-N activity, short for the Regional Health Integration to Enhance Services-North, Lango, has leveraged the platform to reduce HIV-related stigma and discrimination, which is responsible for the low use of antiretroviral therapy (ART) among the young people.
The contest focuses on crowning a role model young people with HIV can look up to — someone who can advocate for their needs and increase acceptance of their status in society. It is one of the many ways young people living with HIV are changing their narrative from stigma to empowerment.
The HIV prevalence rate in Lango, a region in mid-northern Uganda, stands at 7.2 percent, which is higher than the national average of 6.2 percent. Approximately 7,200 young people ages 15 to 24 years in this region are living with HIV. To help these young people take charge of their lives, USAID adopted the 2019 Ministry of Health peer-to-peer approach called Youth and Adolescent Peers (YAPS) model to empower adolescents and young people living with HIV to become agents of change. Through the program, the participating youth — or YAPS ambassadors, as they are called — are trained by health workers to provide referral services, life-skills training, and peer-to-peer support for adolescents and young people living with HIV.
Oscar Otim became one of the YAPS ambassadors and peer trainers in his community and is now ensuring that young people get youth-friendly HIV services, including prevention, care and treatment, as well as counseling; something he says is important to him.
Oscar is the epitome of health. Vibrant and exuding great confidence, you would not know the hardships he has gone through as a young man. For 17 years, Oscar was HIV positive and did not know it. Then In 2018, Oscar discovered he was positive.
“In that moment, all I thought about was death,” Oscar said. “It took counseling from a fellow young person living with HIV for me to realize that it was not the end of life for me.”
Oscar fell very ill at school when he was 17 years old. Within a few weeks, his health deteriorated quickly. He became rail-thin and had pale skin and rashes. Doctors conducted several tests, but there was nothing conclusive. He was taken to Lira Regional Referral Hospital for further tests, including HIV.
“I was incredulous! I was thinking, ‘Why am I being sent for an HIV test when I have never even had sex?’ ” he said.
The test came back positive. The doctors recommended that his mother get tested as well, and she too was positive. Oscar was born with HIV.
“I broke down and cried. I was scared. I was angry. I was devastated. I thought my life was over,” he said.
When Oscar tested positive, the person who gave him the results did not prepare him or counsel him before delivering the devastating news.
“I was just left there in the corridors crying,” he said. “A young person, slightly older than me, approached me and took me to her office. She introduced herself as Sharon and told me she could tell that I had received a positive result. Then she told me that she too was HIV positive.”
“I couldn’t believe that because she looked so healthy, and I told her so. She told me, ‘You too can be positive and still look healthy.’ She counseled me and led me to the clinic where I was enrolled in care and treatment. She saved my life!”
Sharon is one of the young people trained by the USAID activity to provide counselling for young people living with HIV and to link them to health facilities and community-led services for HIV treatment and care. She was also trained to accompany young people living with HIV to medical appointments and carry out follow-up home visits to help them adhere to treatment.
“After what Sharon did for me, I have publicly disclosed my HIV status because I want other people to learn from my experience and give young people the information they need to lead healthy and dignified lives. I feel confident to speak out because I have support from my friends and community,” Oscar said.
With this confidence and determination, he was crowned “Mr. Y+.” As the reigning Mr. Y+, Oscar says he will capitalize on the public platform to reach more young people, providing information on HIV and promoting self-acceptance.
Written by Angela Kateemu, USAID, and originally posted by USAID on Medium.