Challenging Sex & Sexuality in the Church

Veronica Banda

In June, 2016, JASS Southern Africa (SNA) and partners held a Feminist Movement Building School with 30 women as part of an ongoing organizing effort—under the Our Bodies, Our Lives (OBOL) campaign—to strengthen women’s capacity, leadership and voice in the fight for access to quality medicine and healthcare for all HIV-positive people in Malawi. OBOL was initiated by women living with HIV (WLHIV) in 2012, building on the training and accompaniment supported by JASS since 2007. JASS has helped build and sustain the campaign with partners MANERELA+ (Malawi Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Affected by HIV and AIDS) and COWLHA (Coalition of Women Living with HIV/AIDS). Today, OBOL—a 6000-strong community-based campaign—has made key advances including winning a commitment from the Ministry of Health to replace outdated toxic medicines with better antiretrovirals (ARVs), and conducting treatment literacy outreach to thousands of women covering 26 of 28 Malawian districts.

During the school, JASS’ Winnet Shamuyarira spoke to Veronica Banda, a female pastor from Lilongwe who is among the women activists involved in the OBOL campaign.

Interview with Veronica

Who am I?

My name is Veronica Banda and I am a female pastor from Lilongwe, Malawi. I would like to share my story with the world, and hope it can inspire other women. 

We must speak honestly

I am HIV-positive (HIV+) and I decided to share my story because I feel it is important for the church to have a voice and speak honestly about sex and sexuality issues. I am also coming from a background where women are not expected to take on roles as Pastors. People in the church are very judgmental especially where HIV is concerned. In the church, all women who are found HIV+ are called names such as ‘prostitute’ and this is not right. As an HIV+ female pastor, I feel that it is important for me to be in the forefront of challenging taboos surrounding sex and sexuality, and fighting to ensure that we de-stigmatize HIV in our churches and in the communities.

My drive

I became a pastor because I felt that it was important to open up spaces for women to take on roles as pastors. I also wanted to amplify the voices and experiences of women using the pulpit, a platform that has been used to marginalize our existence.

The fact that HIV is mostly transmitted through sexual contact has made many pastors to stigmatize people living with HIV. Thus the church has not only been in the forefront of stigmatizing HIV, but it has also been preaching about “faith healing”. We have seen many HIV + women stop their medication after being told by their pastors that they could be healed through prayer and their faith. However, as a person living with HIV and also as a pastor, I know that the virus cannot be healed through faith. People need to take their medication in order to live longer.

I am really tired of people looking at HIV+ people as promiscuous and also being solely defined as HIV+, such that our lives just become about that. I want to be looked at as Veronica and for the church to start respecting our lives and our health through how we preach. Our preaching should not chastise people. Instead, it should encourage them to take their medication, and to know their status.

Challenging sex and sexuality in the Church

When I came for the Malawi Northern Region Feminist Movement Builders School (FMBS), I was sitting with a lot of things that I thought should never be spoken about. However, given the safe space that was created here, I found myself questioning how it is that I live in the “master’s house?” I realized that I feed the system of the master’s house in many ways, including my silence on issues that are affecting me. My husband and I have been having anal sex but I could never talk about it. However, whilst in the meeting, I realized I need to talk about this.

Given this shift, my conviction to work with women to challenge sex and sexuality especially in the church was made even more concrete. A lot of women are engaging in anal sex but do not have space to talk about this reality because of societal perceptions. The situation is worse for HIV+ women, who sometimes have to live with anal STIs and not be able to access treatment. I therefore want to create space in the hubs to talk about this. The hubs are meeting spaces that have been created by women who are part of the JASS, MANERELA+ and COWLHA to speak about their issues in a safe and non-judgmental environment.

My positioning as a female pastor gives me great leverage as the women will most likely engage. So we need to create safe space in our hubs to talk about the anal sex issue and access to health services. It is important to have a collective voice on this issue and I am prepared to initiate that space at the Lilongwe hubs.

Women as women

I am also going to work with sex workers and this is critical in creating an environment of no-stigma. Sex workers do not feel comfortable being in church because they too are chastised and marginalized. However, there is need for churches to start seeing, ‘women as women’ and I am going to drive that agenda.

Women’s voices and actions are critical in ensuring that women’s lives are free from discrimination of any sort. I will carry this lesson and use it in my work as a pastor as I engage with the church and above all to ensure that we keep the momentum of the Our Bodies, Our Lives (OBOL) campaign. I am a woman crossing the line by transgressing against social norms through talking about my status, my body, sex and my life.

Veronica shared her story with Winnet Shamuyarira with translation from Mirriam Msewa during the Malawi Northern Region Feminist Movement Builders School, June 2016