Donning both shimmering evening gowns and traditional Botswana costumes of animal-skin skirts, 14 HIV-positive women and their relatives competed Saturday in a beauty pageant in the AIDS-ravaged nation to help combat the stigma that surrounds the disease. Nearly 40% of Botswana's people are HIV-positive, the highest infection rate in the world. Infected people are often ostracized, and the organizers of the "Miss HIV Stigma-Free Pageant" said they hoped the contest would show that the disease does not have to prevent women from being vibrant and beautiful. Kgalalelo Ntsepe, 31, who was crowned the winner, spoke of the anti-HIV drugs that transformed her from bone-thin and sickly to robust and healthy. She urged others not to wait until they are at death's door to seek treatment.
Buoyed by more than $100 million in support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the New Jersey-based drug giant Merck, Botswana has launched a program to provide free anti-HIV drugs to all of its citizens--the first wide-scale treatment program in Africa.