'Violent crime and poverty fuelling HIV rise in Uganda'

Hood Katende, a dreadlocked reformed thief and onetime drug peddler is now an anti-AIDS activist respected in his Kampala slum. The 26-year-old urges young men to wear condoms if they can’t avoid premarital sex and encourages teenage girls to reject the sexual advances of older men with money.

“At night you find boys waiting for girls to rape, and I go to them and I try to talk to them not to do it,” he said. “I used to be with them, smoking weed the whole day in the ghetto and moving around at night. I was a member of a gang, but now they see that I have changed day and night.”

As World AIDS Day is marked today, Katende is trying to stem a troubling resurgence in Uganda of HIV, which now infects more than 500 young women between the ages of 15 and 24 each week, according to the Uganda AIDS Commission. Between 2007 and 2013 the number of Ugandans infected with HIV rose from 1.2 million to 1.6 million, according to Uganda’s Ministry of Health.

 Uganda’s HIV prevalence rate now stands at 7.4 percent, up from about 6 percent a decade ago, raising concerns among AIDS activists who want President Yoweri Museveni’s government to step up the old prevention campaigns that in the 1990s made Uganda a global leader in controlling the spread of HIV. The deteriorating situation is also being watched by Western donors who contribute substantially toward the cost of AIDS treatment for poor Ugandans.

More than 250,000 Ugandans have reliable access to AIDS treatment through the US government.

Ugandan researchers say the virus has been spreading particularly fast among married couples, fuelled by the phenomenon of “side dishes,” the popular term here for secret lovers or mistresses. Many of those mistresses tend to be vulnerable teenagers who are targeted by wealthy, but often HIV-infected, men.

For Katende, the activist, those most in danger are girls in Kampala’s Kamwokya slum who have to scavenge for everything, including food and clothing. Many girls he knows well have been repeatedly raped, and others have sought the services of crude abortionists because of unwanted pregnancies, he says.

Katende walks through his neighbourhood, observing quirks of behaviour among teenagers with the curious intensity of a researcher. Recently he watched about a dozen children in a dance troupe perfect their hip gyrations before they accompanied him as dancers in an AIDS awareness performance that they will take to eastern Uganda.

Katende is now widely seen as a “change agent” within his neighbourhood because of his activism, and he is paid to perform at functions sponsored by the United Nations (UN) children’s agency, raucous events where singers on a moving truck belt out rap to encourage voluntary HIV testing. Last year Katende led an event in which hundreds of men were circumcised, a procedure research has shown can reduce HIV transmission rates.

Lawrence Mukiibi, is the youth coordinator of Treasure Life Centre, a group whose recording studio is operated by Katende and other artists. He said activists with street credibility and a compelling story are needed to reach out to young people in a community where violent crime and poverty leave many exposed to HIV. The group, which is funded by local and foreign donors, is increasingly focusing on what it calls “edutainment,” public activities like dramas through which young people can be enlightened as well as entertained about reproductive health.

“Infections are going up again, and we need to get back to the drawing board as young people and see what relevant techniques we could use if we are going to a school outreach,” he said. “That’s the reason why we are working with (Katende). If you don’t integrate music, if you don’t integrate drama into the message you are trying to carry out forward, some people may not realise how grave the situation is.”