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BOTSWANA: Miss Stigma Free 2005 crownedgaborone, 28 February 2005 (IRIN) - An elated 22-year-old AIDS activist, Cynthia Leshomo, was crowned Miss Stigma Free 2005 at a glittering event on Saturday at Botswana's Gaborone International Convention Centre.
About 500 people attended the gala evening with the theme "Down with stigma, Down with discrimination", which was broadcast live on television.
Dressed to kill in a flowing floral evening gown, a glamorous Leshomo looked every inch a winner - a far cry from the stereotypical image of a person living with the virus.
"I am going to urge our government to involve HIV-positive people in work on HIV/AIDS, especially in hospitals, because we have shortages of nurses," Leshomo said in response to the questions put to each of the contestants.
Saturday's event was the third time since 2000 that the competition has been held. All the 12 entrants were HIV-positive, and stood to win a monthly allowance of US $500 and a study scholarship sponsored by the mining giant De Beers.
Approximately 300,000 people in Botswana are estimated to be living with the virus but, due to stigma, only 13 had gone public with their status, said Robert Letsatsi, project coordinator for the NGO, Centre for Youth of Hope.
"This pageant is intended to increase the message about the negative impact of stigma and discrimination," he told IRIN.
Leshomo is now the public face of a campaign designed to educate, challenge prejudice, and encourage people to know their status, in a country that was one of the first in Africa to introduce a free national AIDS treatment programme.
"Being HIV-positive is not the end of the world - if you are HIV-positive you still have access to life-saving treatment and do things that other people do," said Norah Nkwe, staff welfare officer for De Beers.
Neo Sampoela, a mother with four children, said she had entered the pageant because she wanted people living with HIV/AIDS to feel good about themselves, and not give up living life to the fullest.
"In July 1994, when I first tested positive, it was difficult because it was not talked about. We only knew that if you are HIV-positive, you are going to die," said Sampoela.
A decade later, she walked out in front of the TV cameras at one of Botswana's biggest venues to publicly proclaim she was still very much alive.