Martha Clara Nakato first found out that she was HIV positive when she was 15 years old. It happened when her twin brother had asked her to escort him to have an HIV test. Reaching the hospital, she too, decided to take an HIV test- and that’s when it dawned on her that she was HIV positive.
“I was very confused, scared and shocked. In my head, I was asking myself how I was HIV positive yet I was still a virgin.” Martha recalls. “I was scared my dad would kill me but to my dismay, he wasn’t shocked at all but rather bitter and asking what I was looking for at a hospital!” She says.
Her dad had never disclosed to anyone about her status not to even her family, because he was scared she couldn’t live a normal life since she was the only child born with HIV.
From that moment when she discovered she was HIV positive, her life turned upside down. She was no longer the jolly little girl who used to make everyone laugh. She was no longer the young girl who was always playing. She no longer wanted to talk to anyone and she became traumatized.
“I had terrible self stigma, self pity and denial. I always looked at myself in the mirror and saw a walking corpse and thought I would die soon.” Martha says. “At a certain point, I tried killing myself because I never realized am worth a purpose in life.” She remembers.
Things became worse in her A-level. She had not yet accepted her HIV status and was constantly on suicide watch. Seeing that the boarding school she was attending was not comfortable looking after her due to her condition, she was “politely” expelled from Trinity College Nabbingo and her parents were advised to put her in a day school where she can receive acute care and management.
One day when she was scrolling through Facebook, she landed on post that was advertising for an HIV Beauty Queen and King pageant organized by the Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV.
“My heart froze at that moment. I could not believe that there was a contest for HIV positive young people. I began to stalk the then reigning Miss HIV+ Robinah Babirye and after following her posts, I decided to give it a shot.” Martha recalls.
The young positive (Y+) beauty pageant, is an annual event comprised of young men and women between the ages of 13 – 24 developed to celebrate beauty with Zero Discrimination, and aimed at fighting stigma and discrimination against young people affected and living with HIV and AIDS.
According to the 2016 Uganda Population HIV Impact Assessment Report (UPHIA), the total number of adults and children of all ages living with HIV in Uganda is estimated to be approximately 1.3 million. Uganda registers 230 HIV new infections a day. Despite widely available anti-retroviral therapy, 76 people die of AIDS-related causes every single day.
Botswana, one of the countries in sub-Sahara Africa with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate was the first to have organized a beauty pageant for HIV positive contestants in 2000. It has since organized over 20 such beauty contests to help reduce the HIV stigma.
After a boot camp and a series of competitions and emerging as Miss Y+ Central region 2016 on 3rd September 2016, she became the 1st runners up at the grand finale on 24th September 2016 at Golf Course Hotel kololo.
“The night I was crowned Miss Y+ was one of the best days in my life. When I saw how people cheered and applauded each time I walked down the runway, I realized am someone special and worth great things in this world.” She says this with a beaming smile.
Martha, now 21 and a student at Kyambogo University pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting and Finance, has been unstoppable ever since. She has shared her story as a speaker while addressing the statement for the Young people Living with HIV at the National Joint Aids Annual Review Meeting 2016, Panelist consultant during the launch of the Uganda Population-based HIV Impact Assessment Survey, been to all East African Community countries, United Kingdom and South Africa as an HIV/AIDS Champion motivational speaker, she is currently the Secretary for the Youth Advisory Committee for the Uganda Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) Alliance, she was elected Chairperson for the Ugandan Chapter for the Pan African Positive Women’s Coalition and she is a peer educator with The Aids Support Organization ( TASO).
“We people living with HIV have to de-stigmatize the community about HIV/AIDS. The struggle against HIV/AIDS will never succeed without addressing stigma. I have personally suffered stigma and I know it can be more lethal than the HIV virus.” Martha states.
Martha who is the 2016 Miss Y+ together with other awarded Y + winners, have been role models and have spear headed among the other champions in the fight against the spread of HIV and the fight against new HIV infections in in Uganda
“Here I am today once a nobody now a somebody, a strong admirable woman, inspiring, an international HIV motivational speaker and above all an advocate for the rights of Young people living and affected by HIV.” She says. “I call upon all Young positives to stand bold, stop hiding and letting HIV control them but rather come participate in this awesome life changing opportunity to realize their potentials and to the people in the communities. Come witness the beauty within Young boys and girls living with HIV.” She concludes.