What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others is immortal.
Winnie Byanyima, the current Director of Oxfam International, has led a life in accordance with this principle. Her story is reflective of her true devotion to benefiting the world by helping others. She has worked relentlessly to break down barriers and to stand up for those without a voice. Her moral compass, leadership abilities, and genuine character have allowed her to be a leading female contributor to global wellbeing.
The story of Winnie Byanyima’s life begins in Uganda, where she was born and raised. The year she was born, 1959, was not a time in Uganda when gender equality was prioritized. Being an intelligent young girl growing up in Uganda through the 60s and 70s came with its challenges. Obstacles never hindered Byanyima, however, and she began to break down gender barriers at the young age of 22 when she became the first female Ugandan to obtain an aeronautical engineering degree. She then received a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Cranfield University. For several years, Byanyima worked as a flight engineer for Uganda Airlines. The outbreak of the Ugandan Bush War, which lasted from 1981-1986, ignited a passion in Byanyima to fight for her country, so she left her job to go fight. She and her husband served as combatants for the National Resistance Army (NRA).
After the NRA’s victory, Winnie was appointed as the Ugandan Ambassador to France. Her role in Ugandan politics continued on until the early 2000’s. After various parliamentary positions, she was appointed Director of the Women, Gender, and Development Committee at the African Union in Ethiopia. She then held a position as Director of the Gender Team in the Bureau for Development Policy at the United Nations Development Program. Then in January of 2013, it was announced that she would be the next Director of Oxfam International. She began her five-year directorship in May of 2013.
Oxfam International is a global organization that works to end the injustice of poverty. Through disaster relief, human rights advocacy, food and water programs, and education, Oxfam International is devoted to supporting the world’s most vulnerable people. Not only do they provide short-term relief, but they also believe in the power of long-term support to help end the cyclical nature of poverty that is prevalent in many areas of the world.
Winnie Byanyima has constantly directed her efforts as a leader toward achieving gender equality, fighting poverty, combating climate change, and giving a voice to those who are silenced. She has broken so many barriers, from being the first female Ugandan to obtain an aeronautical degree, to becoming the first African director of Oxfam International.
Byanyima has also been very vocal about the growing income inequality facing our global community. In a speech to the World Economic Forum, Byanyima condemned the fact that the gains of growth across the world have gone mostly to a small percentage of people. She advocates strongly for all members of society to pay their fair share of taxes and to help corporations understand the benefits of paying their lowest employees a living wage.
Through whatever lens you perceive global issues, there is clearly a need to combat global poverty, act to preserve the environment, and work to uphold women’s rights. Byanyima has spent a lifetime dedicated to solving these issues and she has broken down many racial and gender barriers along the way. She has been and continues to be a leading contributor to global wellbeing in the 21st century.
-Story written by S. Ginsberg