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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 March, 2005, 00:29 GMT
'I'm beautiful and HIV-positive'
By Barnaby Phillips
BBC Southern Africa correspondent

In the changing rooms behind the stage, 12 women are busy applying make-up and checking their lavish hair-dos.

Cynthia Leshomo, Miss HIV Stigma Free winner
Many of the contestants have hidden their illness for years
They are preparing for a beauty contest - only this is a beauty contest like no other.

Because there is a lot more to the women taking part than meets the eye.

They are all HIV-positive. And they will be judged primarily on their courage and spirit - qualities as invisible as the disease which is weakening their bodies.

It is Botswana's third "Miss HIV Stigma Free" competition.

It is held at a glamorous resort on the edge of the capital, Gaborone, and hundreds of enthusiastic people have come to watch.

The women parade down the catwalk in evening dress and traditional wear.

It takes enormous courage for them to be here. Attitudes towards Aids are changing very slowly, and some of these women had hidden their status from their own families for years.

Let's fight the stigma associated with Aids, but not people with Aids
Cynthia Leshomo, Miss HIV Stigma Free 2005
The judges ask them how they can help to reduce the stigma that surrounds Aids.

"Look at me. I'm attractive. I'm HIV-positive. What's the big deal?" one of the contestants, Anna Ratotsisi, asks the crowd.

Anna gets warm applause, but the loudest cheers are for Cynthia Leshomo, who is 32 years old and 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 decide that Cynthia is the winner, and she is crowned "Miss HIV Stigma Free 2005".

Contestants on the catwalk
The beauty pageant had 12 contestants
Beaming from ear to ear, she disappears behind a scrum of cameramen and journalists.

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.

The following morning we went to meet Cynthia at her house in Gaborone.

After the previous night's excitement, she looks tired.

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

Male prejudice

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 says.

Cynthia Leshomo with the two runners-up
Cynthia will join projects to combat the prejudice of Aids around Africa
"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, agrees. She is a retired primary school teacher with a kind face.

When she first heard that Cynthia was HIV-positive, Lucy says that she cried.

But she soon realised that with ARVs, her daughter had an excellent chance of carrying on living for many years.

She says: "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".

Watch action from the beauty pageant

Stark Aids message for Botswana
01 Dec 04 |  Africa
Country profile: Botswana
12 Feb 05 |  Country profiles

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