How do you prevent discrimination against HIV/AIDS victims? Organize a beauty contest for them.
That is exactly what women community leaders did in Vietnam, one of the fastest growing countries in Asia but where more than 40,000 people have died so far of AIDS-related illnesses.
The Nov. 14 "Beauty Plus" pageant for women living with HIV received an overwhelming response from participants and proved a stunning success, organizers said.
The immense publicity given to the rare event at the Vietnam Youth Theater, including direct nationwide telecast, helped highlight the HIV/AIDS menace gripping Vietnam, organizers said.
Tears welled in the eyes of the audience as winners were announced and as family members and friends converged at the stage with flowers to greet the 15 finalists.
"It was not easy when I decided to enter the contest because I was afraid of being looked down upon by my neighbors," said Tran Thi Hue, a 28-year-old outreach worker who broke into tears when she was pronounced winner of the crown.
"Also, I was worried the friends of my two sons will taunt them on seeing me on stage," said Hue, who works with the Hanoi Reproductive Health Center.
"But I decided to take the catwalk because I wanted to prove to the community that we are still healthy, and that even though we are infected with HIV, we can still contribute to society," said Hue, who is also a member of the Bright Futures self-help group.
Got virus from husband
She discovered she had contracted the HIV virus from her husband in 2006. One of her sons is HIV-positive while the other suffers from hearing and speaking disabilities. Her husband has since died.
"This victory will only spur me to help those who suffer the same fate as me so that they too can stand up and speak up," said Hue, who hails from Ha Nam province in the south of Vietnam's capital Hanoi.
The top winners were selected by a star-studded jury which considered the contestants' HIV/AIDS-related social work among key factors.
The finalists were chosen from a surprising draw of more than 100 in the preliminary rounds.
As participants took the catwalk, they featured their traditional Vietnamese long dress and evening gowns. They also had to participate in a question-and-answer session.
"A key objective of the contest was to bridge the gap between the ordinary public and HIV victims," said Khuat Hai Oanh, a medical doctor and a member of the contest's organizing committee.
"Our only regret was that the contest was confined to participants from the northern part of Vietnam," she said, suggesting that a national competition would have made a greater impact.
The contest helped in efforts to remove the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
“What these women have suffered from reminds us of the need to strengthen our efforts to stop the spread of HIV,” noted Ong Van Tung, coordinator of the Bright Futures Network, according to a statement on the website of the U.S. embassy in Hanoi.
“However, the fact that they are all beautiful, happy, and full of energy after years of living with HIV is evidence that HIV treatment programs work," he said.
"There are drugs to lengthen the life of people with AIDS, but these people can only have a happy and productive life by overcoming stigma and discrimination, and can exercise their rights to education, employment, health care, and social support.”
The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (or PEPFAR) provided financial and technical assistance for the event in collaboration with the Center for Supporting Community Development Initiative and Vietnam Television’s youth-focused channel VTV6.
Higher infection rate
As of December 2008, a reported 138,000 people in Vietnam were living with HIV, 29,500 of whom are suffering from AIDS, a Vietnamese health ministry report said last year.
While 41,000 lives have been lost from AIDS-related illnesses, what is more concerning is evidence that suggests the HIV infection rate is higher than the number of cases presently reported and managed, the report warned.
The overall national incidence rate showed signs of decline, but new infections continue to be detected, concentrating in high-risk populations such as injecting drug users, female sex workers and their clients, and homosexuals, according to the report.
In Vietnam, nearly half of all people living with HIV in need of treatment still go without it, the joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS said this year.
"Only one in four pregnant women gets an HIV test and only one in three HIV-positive mothers gets treatment to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to her child," it said.
Reported by Viet Ha for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.