Human Rights Watch will present Beatrice Were, national HIV/AIDS coordinator for ActionAID International, and a leading advocate for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda, with its highest honor, the Human Rights Watch Defender Award, on November 7.
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 Joe Amon, director of 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, Were learned she was HIV-positive following her husband’s diagnosis with HIV in the 1990s. When her husband died, his family attempted to seize her property and take custody of her children. Were successfully fought back, later becoming an activist to protect other women from similar abuses.
After disclosing her HIV status to her children, 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 Amon. “By bringing HIV/AIDS out into the open, she has brought hope to countless Ugandans.”
Since 2004, Were has worked with Human Rights Watch and other organizations to highlight Uganda's recent and dramatic backslide in HIV-prevention policy. Although Uganda earned international praise for its highly successful community-based HIV prevention programs in the 1990s, its policies have suffered recent setbacks. In addition to widespread corruption in its programs, Uganda has replaced evidence and rights-based approaches to fighting HIV/AIDS with ideological and ineffective policies such as the U.S.-funded “abstinence-until-marriage” programs. Such programs deny young people complete and accurate information about HIV prevention and have hindered the availability of condoms. The government has failed to protect girls and women from high rates of sexual violence, and instead proposed capital punishment for HIV transmission to minors.
“The government of Uganda is refusing to address the human rights issues underlying the AIDS epidemic, and is instead adopting policies which fuel stigma, discrimination and denial.” Amon said. “Beatrice Were is a courageous and persistent advocate demanding government accountability and reminding us that we can only effectively fight AIDS by giving voice to those affected and by working to protect and empower women.”