Byanyima: 'Green' Enthusiast with soft spot for minority

Winnie Byanyima
Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam executive director. PHOTO | Oxfam  

Winifred Byanyima, a former Ugandan MP and women rights activist — and now next chief global anti-Aids warrior — has something of a talisman. Whether it is in her infectious smile, trademark headscarf or the dark-rimmed glasses, the lucky charm particularly tends to create hope for victims of sexual abuse.

The graduate of aeronautical engineering is credited with turning around Oxfam International, a humanitarian organisation that she joined as executive director in May 2013 at the height of damaging claims of a sex scandal involving staff.

Ms Byanyima was not at Oxfam when the alleged offences took place but anger swelled around the organisation because her predecessor, Barbara Stocking, was not seen as being firm on staff accused of sexual abuse during the 2010 humanitarian operations in Haiti and Chad. Ms Byanyima had to move fast and clean up the mess after over 7,000 donors dumped the organisation.

“This was an appalling mark against the high standard that Oxfam has set for itself,” she would say in a reaction video uploaded on Oxfam’s website and shared online.

On Wednesday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres placed another bet on Ms Byanyima, appointing her as the next executive director of the United Nations Programme on HIV and Aids (UNAids), an agency that co-ordinates global action on the pandemic.


In this new role, she replaces the previous UNAids boss, Michel Sidibe, who left the agency in May after allegations that he inadequately handled sexual assault claims against one of his deputies.

In a statement issued by UNAids following the appointment, Ms Byanyima said: “The end of Aids as a public health threat by 2030 is a goal that is within the world’s reach, but I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge ahead.

“Working with all its partners, UNAids must continue to speak up for the people left behind and champion human rights as the only way to end the epidemic.”

In Uganda, Ms Byanyima is a renowned champion of marginalised communities and women, a role she has played in the last 30 years, including her 11-year stint as a legislator. Or better still, Ugandans know her as the wife of Dr Kizza Besigye, a key opposition figure and a perennial rival of President Yoweri Museveni.

For the rest of the world, she's a women rights advocate who for seven years, from 2004, worked as the director of gender and development at the United Nations Development Programme.

As boss of Oxfam International, she is credited with successfully lobbying for the relocation of the organisation’s headquarters from Oxford to Nairobi, with effect from 2017.

“In my head and my heart, I felt the “centre” of Oxfam was not where it needed to be and that voices within Oxfam were not balanced globally,” she wrote in a 2016 opinion. “The new location will help us to recruit locally more easily...”

In a statement issued on August 14, chair of Oxfam Board of Supervisors Henrietta Campbell described Winnie as “a hugely influential figure during her tenure here”, citing relocation of the secretariat.

“She has been a passionate and highly effective advocate for all Oxfam’s work, particularly around gender justice and in tackling inequality.”

She may be a diplomat but she doesn’t know how to remain politically neutral when it comes to women issues. On August 12, the Daily Nation published a front page story suggesting that a six-man political alliance had been built by President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga to push for referendum. “Yes, we are cooked if we are not at the table! Kenyan women rise! We East African women are standing with you for equality in decision-making,” she tweeted in response to the article. But her life is not always about gender activism. Being a ‘green’ enthusiast, she spends most of her time tending fruits and flowers in her small garden.

“Nothing refreshes me, uplifts my spirit more than pottering in my garden,” she says, adding the garden rejuvenates her spirit and gives her energy to go back to work.

“We have five avocado trees in our garden. They give us fruit and shade all year round. There is an avocado salad at our table every day”.

She tweeted on August 12: “Finally, a cute squirrel has decided to live in our garden! We are honoured. I’ve been waiting for soooo long.”

Most of the time when she appears on TV, is because journalists want her to talk about global inequality. She hardly hides her displeasure with the world’s proverbial seven billionaires and seven billion beggars.

“The super-rich and corporations have over time worked themselves out of paying their fair share of taxes. In turn, governments have withdrawn from delivering vital public services like a full round of education for all citizens,” she laments in one of her latest tweets.