Sharifah Nalugo Kyomukana is a 21-year-old Ugandan woman openly living with HIV.
She is an advocate and a peer educator who encourages young people living with HIV to have a positive outlook toward life. Her goal is to fight HIV stigma and discrimination.
Ms Nalugo pursued a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Art and Designs at the Uganda Christian University.
Ms Nalugo was born to a mother with HIV, and was informed about her status at age nine. She was told to keep it a secret because of stigma in her community. Later, when her grandfather found out about her and her mother’s HIV status, they were kicked out of his home, she told News Deeply.
As a teen, Ms Nalugo feared she would not get married or be able to have children because of HIV. But with the success of antiretroviral treatment, she is optimistic about life.
She kept her HIV status private, until one day in school when noise by ARV pills inside containers sold her out to her classmates.
“I used to take my medicine at school, but those packets make a lot of noise, so people in the corridor were, like, “What is that? Is it something to eat? Why won’t you share it?” So when they found out it was medicine, I told them what it was for. I thought about lying at first, but I thought I might get found out and it would be another case of me lying, so I told them the truth.
“They didn’t believe me at first, they thought I must be joking. [Then] they started asking how I got it, how I felt having HIV. They had questions like, “Will you have a boyfriend? When you get him, won’t you infect him?” Because I had a lot of information, I could answer them,” she told News Deeply.
She is happy her colleagues and friends offered to support her; and they approve of her today.
“A lot of people love me … I am lucky. I have had a lot of support,” she told The Age.
Now that she is out of school – where it is only her colleagues who knew about her HIV status –, why has she decided to go public about living with HIV?
“If you are HIV-positive, you just have to accept yourself for who you are. So I accepted myself. I realized; this is not going to change because I’m growing up. I was tired of lying. I saw how my friends took it, I saw how other colleagues – who weren’t my friends – accepted me, and so I thought it wasn’t a big deal. If you are HIV-positive, you just have to accept yourself for who you are. So I accepted myself…. I was tired of lying,” she told News Deeply.
Her advice to people living with HIV: “I tell them to accept themselves and be happy about who they are. You might be HIV-positive, but you have other things that are better than other people. I tell them they are beautiful, they are smart; I encourage them to think of the other side of things. Like, I can live my life even though I’m HIV-positive. I don’t even look like I’m HIV-positive; I look like a normal person.”
In 2014, Sharifah’s work as a role model was recognized by the Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV, which crowned her the winner of its annual beauty pageant.
“People look up at you and say you are HIV-positive, but you are still the queen,” she says.
During her reign, she traversed the world in search of financial aid to assist people living with HIV/AIDS.
“I went to the U.K. We went to talk to MPs. We told them that young people like us exist, and people in worse conditions than us need their funding. Then we went to Brighton to speak to organizations that work with young people with HIV. But it felt like they were hiding. It was hard to find [their offices], you couldn’t see any signs. I asked them why they didn’t have a sign showing that this is where they did their work. They told me it is because there is too much stigma in the U.K.”
She says her prime focus, currently, is to ensure that ARV distribution is increased to rural Uganda, where it is difficult for people living with HIV to access the drugs.
“…They don’t have the services that we have in town,” she says.
“For example, people in the villages find it hard to access ARVs or reproductive health services. Here in Kampala, I can access everything. At the centers where they pick up their medicine, they have to wait a long time, and they only get medicine for a short while. They have to go back every few weeks, and sometimes the government has not provided enough for them. So when you talk to them, they tell us the problems they are facing. We can’t provide the services, but we can help them emotionally,” added Ms Nalugo.
Does she regret ever going public about her HIV status? No, she clarifies: “I want to carry on advocating for young people and to get a stigma-free country where people say they are HIV-positive, and there is no reaction.”