On November 8, Human Rights Watch will give its highest recognition to Beatrice Were, a leading advocate for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda.
Ms. Were was one of the first Ugandans ever to declare her HIV-positive status publicly. She is a founder of the National Community of Women Living with AIDS (NACWOLA), a grassroots organization that provides services to over 40,000 women in 20 districts of Uganda. She has defended the rights of people living with AIDS against controversial shifts in the country’s AIDS policy, including the recent adoption of U.S.-funded “abstinence-until-marriage” programs.
“Beatrice Were is the human face of AIDS in Uganda,” said Jonathan Cohen, researcher with Human Rights Watch’s HIV/AIDS Program. “She has transformed her personal struggle with AIDS into a courageous and inspiring brand of activism.”
A mother of three, Ms. Were learned she was HIV-positive following her husband’s diagnosis with HIV in the 1990s. When her husband died, his family attempted to grab her property and take custody of her children. Ms. Were successfully fought back, later becoming an activist to protect other women from similar abuses.
After disclosing her HIV status to her children, Ms. Were founded the highly successful Memory Book Project, which encourages HIV-positive parents to prepare their children for bereavement by recording family memories in an album.
“At every step, Beatrice Were has chosen to break the silence around HIV/AIDS rather than to live privately with her illness,” said Cohen. “By bringing HIV/AIDS out into the open, she has brought hope to countless Ugandans.”
Since 2004, Ms. Were has worked with Human Rights Watch and other organizations to highlight Uganda's recent and dramatic backslide in HIV-prevention policy. Uganda earned international praise for its highly successful HIV prevention programs in the 1990s. But the country has recently embraced U.S.-funded “abstinence-until-marriage” programs which deny young people information about any method of HIV prevention other than sexual abstinence until marriage, including information about condoms.
Ms. Were contracted HIV from a husband who to whom she had been faithful. She has devoted much of her career to counseling young people about HIV/AIDS and promoting a full range of HIV-prevention options.
“Beatrice Were is living proof of the dangers of ‘abstinence-until-marriage’ approach,” said Cohen. “Her struggle shows that HIV/AIDS is not solved by promoting marriage, but by promoting the human rights of women.”