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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 March, 2005, 19:04 GMT
Africa's women speak out
The BBC News website asked some of the continent's influential female personalities for their views on the role of women in contemporary Africa.

Miss HIV Stigma Free 2005 Cynthia Leshomo (Botswana)

African HIV/Aids activist Cynthia Leshomo from Botswana has been HIV-positive for five years.

Cynthia was recently crowned Miss HIV Stigma Free 2005.

She was one of 12 contestants who were judged primarily on their courage and spirit. It took enormous courage to take part because of the attitudes towards the disease.

The stigma associated with being HIV-positive is changing, but only very slowly.

What is the role of women in Africa today?

Our role is care giver and the main source of support for a family, whether it is financial, emotional or otherwise.

What challenges do they face?

We lack a voice in decision making and it is difficult to be financially independent as we don't have access to livelihood resources such as land.

Do you think the role of women has changed?

The role of a woman has somehow changed, although she is still the family care giver, the demands of being a professional are now added to that.

In what way do you think women can bring about change most successfully?

Only a small number of African women are empowered to bring about change.

Women can bring about change most successfully in countries where they can vote. They should elect people who will take women issues seriously and also form lobby groups.

Are women's voices being heard?

No. Unfortunately women often find themselves invisible, unheard and ignored.

What stigmas or taboos prevent women having a stronger voice and if so, what could change this?

Cynthia and other contestants at Miss HIV Stigma Free 2005

It is always said that men are the head of the house. Women don't have enough opportunities to make and implement decisions that affect their lives in the home setting.

We even compromise with our own health - we can't initiate condom use when one is not sure of their partner's HIV status.

The stigma related to HIV/Aids weaves a taut thread through the daily rising infection rates and this impacts on the ability of women to access care and treatment as well as support.

What should the role of a women be in future generations?

Women should have confidence to open up and participate in issues especially concerning HIV/Aids.

Women's greater vulnerability to the infection has led to women the world over to unite to fight for our rights.

If we have the information, support and training we need it will allow us to take charge of our own lives.

What inspires and influences you? Do you have a role model?

I am inspired by our traditional dance and music as it reminds me of when I was in primary school. I used to dance wearing makgabe (traditional outfit).

We must have hope. Hope and courage to fight until a cure is found.

I am in awe of Maxy (Botswana singer) because she is a true groundbreaker who paved the way for many young Botswana artists with traditional music.

She really has opened the door for many young girls in Botswana.

One day I hope that I will be able to open doors for them too, by seeing other African countries participating in Miss HIV Stigma Free and at the end of the day by being Miss World HIV Stigma Free.

I also look up to my mother who taught me independence, perseverance and above all the importance of hard work.

What would your message be?

We should walk tall, be proud and be firm about what we want, supporting each other and speaking as one.

And to all women, like myself living with HIV/Aids, we must have hope.

Hope and courage to fight until a cure is found.

Send us your comments using the form below.

Your comments:

I am so proud of all of these sisters. It is wonderful to see such beautiful women who are speaking their truth. It is not about HIV. It is about the courage and determination of these champions. They are all winners. Much love and countless blessings to you all, my African Sisters!
Raymond, Philadelphia, USA

Cynthia I applaud your courage and strength. I believe you have opened doors for many young girls already. Doors of courage, hope and self respect no matter one's circumstances. Stand tall and proud. God bless you.
Charity Mosweu, Gaborone, Botswana

Cynthia, I wanted to say that you are an inspiration to all African women. I am so proud of you. I beleive if they can give us the chance with all our courage and ideas we can make Africa a better place to live not only for in terms of the economy but also there will be everlasting peace.

I believe with a woman like you, who is HIV-positive and still find a way to be heard Africa can be much, much better. Congratulations on your achievements and may God bless you through your journey in life.
Jarieu Jalloh, Sierra Leone

I have so much respect for you and everything you are doing Cynthia. To stand proud in a prejudice-riddled world like ours takes so much courage. I pray that your dream of having a Miss World HIV Stigma Free comes true. All the best! Oh and by the way, I'm just too proud of you. You're a true inspiration!
Ngum, Manchester, England

Congratulations - you are no ordinary women. You have great courage. Continue to be strong and keep up the great work. You are a beautiful woman.
Evauhn, Austin, Texas

I am so proud of you. All the best,
Anna from Uganda studying in New York, US

Cynthia I wanted to say I am so proud of the work that this pageant does for women in finding courage to come forward. I know that as women we feel like our voices are not always heard and instead with being HIV-positive we will be even more looked down upon. I see this as a platform that will give women voices not only about their health but also about more of the issues that we face in the country. Congratulations and God bless you through the journey of your life!
Kitso, Baltimore, Maryland

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