15 October 2012

October 2012: Melissa Browning Teleconference Notes

Melissa Browning Notes October 10, 2012  Mary E. Hunt and Wendy Mallette

1. Slides to accompany Melissa’s presentation may be found at:

2. Melissa tries to de-center herself as a researcher and allow the women in the research speak. She encourages all teleconference participants to watch the video of Veronica’s interview, which can be found at: If anyone is interested in teaching on this material, email Melissa at for more audio and video clips of interview that may be shared in classroom settings.

3. Melissa’s began her work in East Africa in 1998 as an undergraduate student. Her most recent research takes place in Mwanza, Tanzania around issues of HIV and AIDS and Christian marriage (Slide 2). In interviewing women she discovered that marriage is a risk factor for HIV and AIDS. In sub-Saharan Africa, HIV is primarily spread through heterosexual sex in relationships. Many of her research participants explained that it easier to be a girlfriend than to be a wife because a woman’s economic viability is tied to her husband, making it harder to demand that the husband be faithful or use condom. Mwanza has a particularly high rate of HIV and AIDS, especially among women, due to its male-controlled fishing and trade industries.

4. Her primary research partners included Diocese of Victoria Nyanza Anglican Church and other groups with HIV and AIDS support groups where she gathered participants for her research (Slide 3). She utilized the participatory action research methodology, which gives research participants epistemological priority. Over four months she met with a group of 12 HIV+ women, 8 of whom had contracted HIV in marriage (Slide 4). It was a diverse group of women whose contributions on questions and issues surrounding HIV and AIDS and Christian marriage varied widely (Slide 5). She also had a research advocate who assisted with cultural barriers in the research.

5. Participatory action research model is based on the work of Paulo Freire. It seeks to evoke hidden themes in women’s lives (Slide 6). It follows the cycle of plan, act, observe, and reflect. One example of this methodology is as follows: During one session, the women were talking about women’s roles in society. As an activity, they made a plan to use digital cameras to take pictures of women doing work. The pictures were then used to lead the group into a discussion about women’s roles in marriage the following week. Other creative means including art, photography, and drama were used by women to access themes in their lives.

6. Book Outline (Slide 7)
  • 1.     “It’s Better To Be Single”: Thinking about marriage in the midst of an epidemic
  • 2.     “Let’s Talk About Trust, Baby”: HIV and AIDS vulnerabilities and intimate relationships
  • 3.     Love and Sacrifice: The boundaries of self and conceptions of love
  • 4.     Learning From Stigma: Living as an outcast in intimate relationships
  • 5.     Re-Imaging Christian Marriage in the Midst of an Epidemic

7. Statistics on HIV and AIDS (Slide 8)
  •  40 million people in our world are now living with HIV and AIDS and two-thirds are in Africa.
  • Of the HIV and AIDS related deaths in 2006, two-thirds were in Africa.
  • Of those living with HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, 59% are women and girls, and the population segment with the fastest growing rate of infection is girls aged 15-24. 
8. Her research concluded that Christian marriage in East Africa actually exacerbates the HIV and AIDS  pandemic (Slide 9). The pandemic made marriage more dangerous for women because of patriarchy present in marriage.

9. She turned to the abstinence-versus-condom debate present in the literature on HIV and AIDS globally, especially under George W. Bush’s PEPFAR aid policy: 33% - abstinence, 33% - be faithful, and 33% - condoms (Slide 10). Melissa argues that this is a false debate: neither abstinence nor condoms protect when women don't have complete agency to chose condoms or abstinence, especially when women’s bodies become commodities. She also argues that the global debate on HIV and AIDS often centers on behavior modification and on minimizing sexual partners, but the debate looks at sexual ethics without considering other social ethics of concerns such as access to healthcare, trading sex for food, the commodification of women’s bodies, etc. Therefore Melissa concludes that in such a patriarchal system, “abstinence, be faithful, and condoms” are not very helpful because they are not woman-controlled prevention methods.

Melissa also analyzed condom commercials from East Africa in her research condom. One example can be found here: (Slide 11). These ads (for the condom brand Trust, for example) spread various false notions such as: safe sex is for strangers (not those in committed relationships), only men carry condoms, and men control the use of condoms. Melissa also noted that this misinformation makes marriage look safe when really, it is not (Slide 12).

10. Another major focus of Melissa’s research was particular vulnerabilities within intimate relationships.

HIV and AIDS Vulnerabilities and Intimate Relationships (Slide 13)

·      Sex is Taboo
o   Taboo speech (blood, sex, bodily fluids, death); Negotiations for “safe” sex 
·      Modern Life (in Postcolonial Space)
o   Fragmented families (urban migration); movement of goods (trucking)
·      Traditional Practices
o   Bridewealth; Female circumcision; Male infidelity (hidden polygamy); Widow inheritance & cleansing; Child marriage; Ritual sex; Postpartum abstinence
·      Poor Health
o   Poor nutrition; concurrent infections; lack of access to medical care
·      Poverty
o   Fatalism; HIV causes poverty; Food security
·      Education
o   Education as luxury; Importance of general education (more than sex ed)

The Particular Vulnerabilities of Women and Girls (Slide 14)

·      Biological Vulnerabilities
o   Women are 2x more likely to contract HIV from men than men from women 
·      Economic Vulnerabilities
o   Land ownership; Land grabbing; Boys go to school before girls; Sex for food/fees; Inability to refuse sex with unfaithful partners
·      Legal Vulnerabilities 
o   Marital rape; Divorce laws; Marriage age; Legal Polygyny; Bridewealth; Domestic violence
·      Socio-cultural Vulnerabilities
o   Patriarchal vulnerabilities (girls are less valued, girls serve men/boys)
·      Global Vulnerabilities
o   Feminization of poverty; Global women’s health; Lack of female controlled prevention methods (underfunded research)
·      Relational Vulnerabilities
o   Lack of mutuality; Women’s roles confined to home; Unequal power

10. Melissa compares the feminist moves of women in sub-Saharan Africa to those of Valerie Saiving Goldstein in her early work that breaks out of a male-centered paradigm sin and self-sacrifice (Slide 15). Unlike Goldstein’s notion that women are self-sacrificing, Melissa argues that in sub-Sahara Africa, women are not sacrificing themselves, but rather are being scarified by society, church, and their families. Therefore, these women were seeking out flourishing in the midst of oppression. A concern and question that Melissa continues to struggle with is how to talk about these women not as victims but as agents who also face obstacles.

11. One of the major conclusions that Melissa draws from her research is that we need to talk about HIV and AIDS in East Africa in terms of social ethics, not personal behavior or exclusively in terms of sexual ethics. This means we need to talk about social systems, poverty, malnutrition, and general education, as well as women’s empowerment, generally, not only their sexual bodies (Slide 20).

Another space that needs discussion is marriage in Christian churches; where churches can make a difference through counseling, etc. (Slide 21). However, such work within the church is almost impossible within the current patriarchal structures of most churches. Thus, the fundamental nature of the church is going to have to change in order to respond effectively to HIV and AIDS. Finally, Melissa used Karen Lebacqz’s work on marriage as loving the enemy; this might produce a more realistic understanding of marriage, instead of a safe space, as a space that can be unsafe for women, particularly in light of the HIV and AIDS pandemic.

Questions and Discussion

1. One participant asked how Melissa thinks the church structure in East Africa needs to change to effectively address HIV and AIDS

Regardless of the similarities between churches in sub-Saharan Africa, there is an importance of focusing on the particular, therefore Melissa will focus on churches in Mwanza.

In Mwanza there is little difference between/among various Protestant churches. In Mwanza churches, men sit on one side; women and children sit together. Women make up about two-thirds of the congregation, but the clergy are almost completely male, even in denominations that ordain women (ELCA Lutheran, Anglican, etc.).

Because Melissa is an ordained minister, a woman Anglican lay-leader wanted Melissa preaching in local churches. During her research in Mwanza, she would often team preach with this woman as a translator. This created a reminder for the women in the congregation that women could also preach.

Along with Mercy Oduyoye and other African feminist theologians, Melissa argues that having the voice of women in the church will help turn the tide on HIV and AIDS. Another result of the research is a commitment of the women in the study to be present in churches on World AIDS Day to give their testimonials. Melissa noted that this both reduces stigma and changes the perception of Christian marriage as a safe space.

2. Another participant asked: Is polygamy legal? And is abortion legal?
Melissa explained that there are three kinds of marriage in Tanzania: Islamic, Traditional, and Christian. While polygamy is legal for Islamic and Traditional marriages, it is not legal for Christian marriages. She also noted that in Tanzania “hidden polygamy” is widely practiced in Christian marriages. While polygamy is problematic, at least in traditional polygamy there was some accountability whereas in “hidden polygamy” there is no accountability for multiple partners. One reason for “hidden polygamy” in Tanzania is because for most ethnic groups, women don’t have sex during pregnancy or breast feeding which means 2-3 years without sex. This is the period during where a man often gets a girlfriend, and then the woman discovers she is HIV positive once she is pregnant with the second child. Therefore, “hidden polygamy” is often a problem.

Melissa said that abortion is usually not desirable for most women in Tanzania because children born outside of marriage are not considered illegitimate, and all children are welcome. The situation in Kenya, however, is different where abortion is highly restricted, and the problem with “back ally” abortions persists.

3. There was an inquiry about how churches and schools deal with sex education for young teens.
The government of Tanzania has done a reasonably good job by providing public awareness campaigns about HIV and AIDS that have brought it to the forefront. One major problem, more so in Uganda and Kenya is that you have groups like the True Love Waits Campaign (abstinence program funded by the Southern Baptist Church USA) sending millions of dollars for abstinence/faithfulness in marriage to East Africa. For example in Uganda, the First Lady led a parade of virgins and rallies for girls. The problem is that these programs do not recognize agency required for young girls to enforce abstinence or faithfulness. Abstinence programs do not recognize the prevalence of rape, that girls trade sex schooling, women trade sex for food, etc.

Sex education literature (primarily religious literature on the topic) is based on misunderstanding that women can always choose abstinence and faithfulness and that these are always safe. Melissa will be returning to Tanzania to work with women to develop a marriage prep curriculum for late teens to talk about how marriage can be a dangerous place.

4. The moderator asked Melissa to discuss some of the challenges that she faced as a white feminist from the United States doing work internationally in Africa, especially around issues of race and intercultural difference, and some of the ways that she navigated these challenges.

Melissa chose the participatory action research methodology for her research because the participants are involved in designing the research. For example, women participants explained to Melissa that bringing in mementos from wedding day did not apply to them because they were married informally first. It became a back-and-forth model of research.

Melissa also emphasized the importance of being conscious of her privileges of being a white feminist from West. She gave examples of this privilege and named that she was in healthy marriage and that as an ordained minister, she was asked to preach in Tanzanian churches. However, these spaces of difference provided space for conversation and comparing social contexts of HIV and AIDS in the United States and HIV and AIDS in their context. Melissa explained that she was looking for true solidarity while acknowledging her own privilege.

5. A participant asked Melissa if there were there points in her work where being feminist came into conflict with the participatory research method, and how she negotiated that tension.

Melissa answered that one point of difference was hers and the women’s approaches to scripture where the women took a more conservative approach than Melissa to passages such as texts about women’s submission to men, almost as if they were submissive to their husbands, their husbands would love them as Christ loved the church. As a feminist, Melissa had a difficult time with that dynamic. When she writes about these instances, she uses a lot of quotations and differentiates her voice from the women’s in order to be faithful to her own interpretation as a theologian but not let authorial voice overpower the voices of the women themselves.

6. The final question was about Melissa’s future work as well as about the transfer value of what she learned in her research in Tanzania to the situation of HIV and AIDS in the United States.
Melissa responded that her new work at Loyola focuses on social justice and community development in Chicago. She is planning to work with organizations in Chicago that focus on HIV and AIDS in the Africa-American community.

She explains that her next project after the book is working with women to develop curricula to be published and used by them, which is something they requested. She is also bringing an African American student and HIV and AIDS activist to Tanzania with her who will be examining parallels between the US and Tanzanian situations in regard to HIV and AIDS.

WATER thanks Melissa Browning for her work.

Please join us on Wednesday, November 14, 2012, at 1pm (EST) to talk with Dr. Margaret Miles on the subject of “Life Experience and Academic Work.” Email the words "Register Me Teleconference" to by November 13th in order to receive dial-in information.