Crossposted from UNWomen.org
Members of Maendeleo Women’s Group attending a briefing session ahead of the “Emerging enterpreneurs Training” at the UN Women office in Moroto. Photo Credit: UN Women/Elizabeth Mushabe
Married for 17 years, Longok had no idea she was HIV positive until she heard rumors suggesting her husband was living with HIV and got herself tested.
“I was so shocked because in my heart I knew that I have never cheated on my husband and he had found me a virgin when he married me at the age of 16,” says Mwatum Kitui Longok, a mother of six, from Moroto, a remote district located in Karamoja, north-eastern Uganda.
At the age of 33 Longok’s life changed. Stigma and discrimination marred her daily reality; even her children faced societal exclusion. Her son sent home from school by his teacher because of his suspected HIV status.
“Sending away my son from school … this pained me a lot. I wanted to die,” recalls Longok. “I decided to go to the health centre and the health workers gave me counselling. They advised me to join a peer support group of young women living with HIV.”
Joining the young women’s group, which UN Women supported, brought a beacon of light. “At first we used to meet and talk in whispers because we didn’t want to be identified as HIV positive people. Soon we saved money and started lending to each other at low interest rates to start small individual businesses,” shares Longok.
Stigma and discrimination remains a major barrier to reduce new HIV infections among young women and girls, who are often unwilling to seek help. According to the estimates by the Ministry of Health in Uganda, in 2015, there were 29,509 new HIV infections among young people aged 15-24, with 64 per cent (18,894) of the newly infected being young women and girls.
The risk is heightened by the social and economic challenges faced by Ugandan women, including unemployment, food insecurity and gender-based violence. In Karamoja, where the poverty rate is a staggering 74 per cent  (against the national average of 19 per cent ), and infrastructure and services are practically non-existent, women and girls are acutely vulnerable.
Recognizing these challenges, UN Women developed a series of trainings to empower women living with HIV in Karamoja. The pilot trainings with 70 participants from the Moroto district in March 2016 showed early results in terms of improved self-esteem, confidence and entrepreneurial skills. Some women’s groups have already started budding businesses. For example, the Umoja group, which set up a store to sell dry grains and cereals to local retailers, has now been shortlisted for government grants to help women entrepreneurs meet the operational costs, expand their stock or start new business ventures.
As Catherine Lopuka, a member of the Umoja group explains, “I didn’t know that I could run a successful business until I underwent the business training provided by UN Women. I now know how to calculate profit and loss and how to do book-keeping. I also opened a personal bank account after the training to save some of my money.”
“Our aim is to boost women’s self-esteem, confidence and business competencies in all seven districts of Karamoja over the next five years,” said Hoddan Addou, UN Women Country Representative in Uganda.
With additional funding from Irish Aid under the UN joint programme in Uganda, “Support for AIDS”, UN Women is strengthening its collaboration with the Moroto district local government to provide ongoing mentorship and supportive supervision to the beneficiaries, and also expanding the entrepreneurship and business development training to more young women.
 Uganda Bureau of Statistics. Uganda Demographics and Health Survey. (2011). p.17
 UNDP. Uganda Poverty Status Report. (2014). p.3