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New Vision
Ugandan youth move to front line of HIV, maternal health fight

<p>Catherine Mwesigwa</p>


May 23, 2013

Rubaga Girls Primary School pupils had assembled to listen to an HIV awareness talk. The school always created an opportunity for the pupils and their parents to learn about different issues, including HIV.

Among the visiting experts to address them was Dr. Lutakome. To start his discussion he asked, "What does being HIV infected or affected mean?"

The class burst into murmurs which turned into whispers.

In the midst of the din, Humphrey Nabimanya was battling within himself. He knew the answer to Dr Lutakome's question but was not confident to speak out.

"I was not fluent in English. I did not think I could speak in front of the whole school," he says.

Mustering all the courage he could, he put up his hand. Dr. Lutakome called him out to the front. He could see the look of disapproval from his fellow pupils as he walked to the front. He knew what they were thinking – that he had embarrassed himself. How dare he own up to being HIV positive?

This was in 2002. Although Nabimanya was not infected, he knew full well, despite his young age then, that he was affected by HIV.

What he didn't know then was that the bold move to stand out that day was starting him on a journey of advocacy for HIV awareness among young people.

He attempted to explain what he understood by being HIV infected or affected, but when he opened his mouth to speak, he broke down in tears. The mummurs hushed down to silence.

"Dr Lutakome let me cry and then I got the courage to tell my story," Nabimanya, now a youth advocate, says.

He had lost his mother at nine months and was raised by an older sister whom he only got to know was his sister much later. He, however, still refers to her as his mother. She too was widowed by HIV when Nabimanya was five.

"I saw my 'mom' waste away due to HIV. I could see she was dying. I grew up with the fear that she would die any moment," he says.

Fortunately the sister was able to receive ARVs and open up to positive living. Soon she was making new friends and found a positive partner.

"When she got a new lease of life, mom and dad always spoke about the short life they had," he recalls.

His childhood was filled with information on HIV but outside home, the environment was hostile.

"The children at school and in my neighbourhood discriminated against me. They said I was HIV positive and was going to die because my mother was positive."

If it was not the children, it would be some of the adults who would stand in to look after him when his sister was not around. He stayed in different homes. At one time he dropped out of school to try his hand at vending merchandise.

That is what his guardian's children were doing at the time and so he had to do same until his sister's husband got him back into school.

So at the age of 12, Nabimanya took himself to Joint Clinical Research Centre to find out his HIV status. To his surprise he was negative but he could not deny how much HIV had affected him.

Nabimanya's story left his schoolmates in tears and at the same time earned him respect. Soon the little boy who had been shunned was given the title' "Counsellor'. By the end of the year he was elected headboy.

There was no turning back after that. During his Primary 7 vacation, Nabimanya, sought out Dr Lutakome and asked to be incorporated into his peer counsellors' team. Dr Lutakome looked at the young boy's enthusiam and took him on.

Almost 15 years later, Nabimanya is a young advocate and has founded an organisation, Reach a Hand, RAHU.

He takes celebrities to schools to share with students their life experiences.

During the interactions, young people ask questions and receive answers from experts and role models.

At the interactions, they are also given opportunities for voluntary counselling for HIV.

Nabimanya's work has taken him to several countries, sharing the Ugandan experience with other youths all over the world.

This month, he is will be among the 100 youth leaders from 68 countries given scholarships to attend the Women Deliver 2013 meeting in Kuala Lumpa, Malaysia.

The Young Leaders selected have demonstrated a commitment to improving the health and well-being of girls and women.

Women Deliver 2013 will bring together global leaders, experts, development partners, philanthropists from 160 countries and is expected to be the largest global meeting of the decade to focus on the health and well-being of girls and women.

The conference aims to keep on the agenda the discussion on investing in girls and women in the lead-up to the 2015 Millennium Development Goal (MDG) deadline.

The meeting has been planned to have strong youth participation. Of the 100 youth advocates from all over the world, Uganda has five – the biggest number from one country.

"I believe deeply in the power of this generation of young people to make an impact on the world - and many young people already are making our world a healthier, safer, more equitable and more sustainable place," said Chelsea Clinton, one of the speakers at the conference.

The youth will attend a youth preconference to empower and equip them with tools and knowledge to advocate effectively at the conference.

Youth issues will be integrated into all aspects of the conference and specifically addressed in special sessions on youth leadership, health, advocacy, sexuality and education.



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