During talks and discussions in between the pageant rituals, UNYPA staffers try to dispel myths. For example, says Alesi, a lot of HIV-positive youngsters mistakenly believe the daily pills they’re getting against AIDS also protects them from pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. Alesi says there’s also tremendous value to simply introducing so many HIV-positive young adults to one another. There’s such a taboo against revealing your status that many don’t realize how common their situation is. “They think they are the only ones living with this,” she says. “So they basically start stigmatizing themselves” shying away from social activities or work opportunities because they feel depressed or afraid they’ll be outed and made fun of. That’s also why the 45 semi-finalists who are selected through the regional auditions are then sent to a week-long farming “boot camp” in the countryside. They’re given lessons on how to start small agricultural enterprises such as raising a few cows, or trees that can earn them a little money. The hope, says Alesi, is not just to give the participants practical skills but to prove to them that there’s no reason they can’t be self-sufficient. “We want to give the courage to feel that just like any other young person they can earn money by working hard.” Many have been dealing with feelings of inadequacy or isolation since childhood, she adds. This year’s Mr.
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