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Oxfam's Winnie Byanyima tells of her struggle against social injustice

Having suffered injustice on many levels, Winnie Byanyima has the life experience and passion to lead Oxfam International's campaign against inequality

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 April, 2015, 1:14pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2015, 11:01am

Winnie Byanyima has perhaps led the most colourful life among the heads of anti-poverty agency Oxfam International. She grew up as a teenager under the brutal rule of Idi Amin, fled to Britain where she trained in aeronautics, but returned to Uganda to work as an aircraft engineer - and wound up joining the bush war led by a childhood friend, Yoweri Museveni, with whom she later fell out.

On her first visit to Hong Kong, though, 56-year-old Byanyima feels oddly at home, a feeling that may be due to Uganda also being a former British colony.

"Even though we use different languages, the way we do things is so similar. This is what the British have done to us," she observes with a laugh.

During her recent visit, two issues emerged from an exchange with local secondary students to learn about their concerns: the prohibitive costs of living space and the failure of wages to keep pace with inflation.

This inequality in Hong Kong is part of what drives Oxfam's campaign to address the widening wealth gap across the world. When Byanyima took up her job as executive director two years ago, an Oxfam report found that the 85 richest people in the world owned as much as the poorest 3.5 billion. By the time she arrived in Davos for the World Economic Forum, where she was a co-chair this year, the number had shrunk to about 80 people - in other words, wealth is concentrated in the hands of even fewer people.

"When the rich get away with this and don't share their wealth, they become more powerful and influence politics. Public policy is in their favour, which results in little investment in social services," she says.

Describing this structural bias as "political capture", Byanyima argues that it not only slows growth in the long term, but also leads to a breakdown in social cohesion (one example, she says, is South America, which suffers high rates of homicide and violence).

Oxfam's campaign against inequality echoes Byanyima's early experiences in Uganda. Her father, Mzee Boniface Byanyima, was a secondary school teacher who went into politics to oppose the corrupt and repressive regime of Idi Amin, the country's third president. The former army major general seized power in a coup when she was about 12 years old. At the time, many people looked to Byanyima's father, who became a member of parliament. But the legislature was soon dissolved and her father's principled stance looked increasingly dangerous.

"For the whole south of Uganda, he was the only opposition leader. He was in and out of jail," she says. "We lived in fear of Idi Amin."

The dictator set up various military units that carried out bloody killings to enforce his rule, and Mzee Byanyima seemed a prime target: "People were disappearing. I feared my father would be killed."

Reflecting on that harrowing period, Byanyima says fear fuelled her passion to fight against dictatorships. "I would hear stories of people being oppressed and that woke up the anger in me."

Her mother, Gertrude, also set an example with her work promoting women's education. She established women's clubs, and introduced programmes to teach illiterate women in poor villages to read, and learn about hygiene and ways to generate income.

Among the issues that her mother fought against was the practice of marrying off girls as young as 13 and 14. "I saw my mum hide a girl in our house for a month, while she negotiated with [the girl's] father," Byanyima recalls.

I worked with combatants who were mostly peasants. It was an important part of my life because it helped me understand and respect them
Winnie Byanyima

Gertrude Byanyima eventually persuaded the father to put off the marriage, but she was not always successful with the many other girls she tried to help.

The conventional thinking then was that girls who were educated were unlikely to find husbands, and therefore liable become "loose" women about town. Nevertheless her mother fought for girls' education rights and started a kindergarten, which is still used as a school today.

As Byanyima turned 17, her parents decided that Uganda's deteriorating situation had made it untenable for their daughter, so they sent her to Kenya. She remembers feeling "dead scared" during the risky journey, but arrived to find a large community of Ugandan exiles. Kenya proved to be a stopover as her parents' friends managed to arrange for her to travel to Britain, where she secured refugee status.

Growing up, Byanyima was told that she could do everything a boy could, and she accomplished that by studying physics and mathematics. When she received a scholarship to attend the University of Manchester, she chose aeronautics "out of curiosity".

To her disappointment, however, large segments of her course dealt with weapon systems while she dreamed of designing jetliners. With the United States locked in an arms race with the Soviet Union during the 1970s, aeronautics students were mostly being trained to work for the military-industrial complex, she says.

Creating weapons was certainly not for her, and Byanyima returned home after graduation to work as an aircraft engineer for Uganda Airlines. It wasn't long before she was helping in the resistance movement against the civilian dictatorship of Milton Obote. Among the rebel leaders was Museveni, who had lived with her family when they were young.

"I would send messages or packages to people, pass on information," she says. "But I was found out - one of my colleagues, an engineer, worked for the dictatorship. He would follow me and he picked up that I would travel and make visits to dissidents.

"But I was lucky - we also had a good network and as soon as I found out, I quickly changed my plans and went underground."

She spent two years living with fighters in the rural south of Uganda.

rights and inequality are linked together. The lives of not just women, but whole communities are affected when there are no or inadequate public services
Winnie Byanyima

"I worked with combatants who were mostly peasants. It was an important part of my life because it helped me understand and respect them, and be part of the movement at the grass roots level. They were the ones teaching me - I saw the history of my country from the perspective of the south rather than from a viewpoint of colonial education. I saw human rights, democracy and poverty from the poor people's perspective."

They also discussed what kind of country they wanted to build once the revolution was over: a move away from the colonial past to become an independent state. After the resistance won the war in 1986, Museveni became president.

Byanyima was very active in the country's reconstruction, establishing systems for electing local governments and ensuring women had a say.

"We have the highest number of women in politics because we set up a one-third quota."

She was elected to parliament three times - without once losing a contest, she adds - and worked for 11 years to help draft Uganda's constitution, a human rights bill and other laws. She also led the women's caucus and equal opportunities commission.

However, Byanyima fell out with the regime she helped get into power when she began criticising top ministers for corruption. She left to work with international agencies, including the African Union and United Nations Development Programme. After her marriage to Kizza Besigye, a doctor turned reformist politician, Byanyima campaigned for her husband when he contested in elections against Museveni, most recently in 2012.

It is undoubtedly tough to see her husband being arrested repeatedly, but Byanyima has prevailed. She attributes her spirit to her parents, who knew the importance of early education and how that would help their seven children get ahead in life.

"It's because my mother is educated - she was a primary school teacher. We didn't have electricity in our village so my mother invested in a high-powered paraffin lamp. Most other families that didn't know the benefits of having good light would not spend as much money on a lamp," she says.

"[My mother] made sure we had time for homework; other children had to fetch water. She invested in a rainwater tank, so we had to fetch water only during the dry season. That freed our time to study."

Sadly, she says, her best friend during childhood didn't get the chance to finish school even though she was smarter, and is now struggling financially.

"Women's rights and inequality are linked together. The lives of not just women, but whole communities are affected when there are no or inadequate public services. But when you provide them with education and opportunities, they are empowered economically. That's why Oxfam invests in women. We try to make women's rights central in everything we do because the benefits are huge. My life story is proof."

Just as her parents instilled strong values of justice and equality in their children, Byanyima believes she and her husband have passed them to their 15-year-old son Anselm, who now attends school in the US.

"He says he is a feminist, which makes me proud," she says, smiling. "We have lived in many countries, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa, America. He's a boy who's very firm in his beliefs of social justice and women's rights. Initially, I wanted to have a girl, but God gave me a boy. I'm happy that he's passionate about women's rights."