Winnie Byanyima: ‘It’s powerful to be different. I never hesitated to be myself. ‘

Most leaders have had to navigate conflicts to survive and grow in their organizations, but few have ever faced the kind of front-line experiences that Winnie Byanyima has overcome.

As a Ugandan, he navigated the postcolonial turmoil of his country to get a place in a top university. But she and her family were soon taken refuge in the UK via Kenya since they were forced to flee persecution. He resumed his studies at the University of Manchester, excelling in subjects dominated by men in aeronautical engineering and environmental sciences. He then turned down a scholarship to the United States to return to Uganda and enter politics.

“I’m a nomad,” she says. “I’ve been through a lot of things like a curious person who’s passionate about social justice.”

As a political activist and community organizer, when the reign of Milton Obote turned to the dictatorship of his deposed predecessor Idi Amin, Byanyima joined the Ugandan clandestine guerrilla movement to help replace him in favor. by Yoweri Museveni.

After a period representing the Ugandan government abroad and working for international organizations focused on women’s rights, she was appointed head of Oxfam International in 2013. Here she led efforts to “ decolonize “the charity, which had been co-founded by“ very privileged ”donations to Oxford, and moved its headquarters to Kenya.

She also helped monitor her response to sexual abuse scandals, before being appointed two years ago to lead the United Nations Joint Program on HIV / AIDS (UNAids). His focus on tackling the virus had been taken over by internal annoyance concerns.

Byanyima remembers growing up in a rage and frightened under Amin’s repressive reign. “I saw that my friends were picked up at school and came back after a week with their heads shaved – a sign that they were mourning the loss of their father and had not even been able to bury him,” he says.

“A woman didn’t know what she could do. Some soldier could drive you out of the way, marry you and her parents wouldn’t dare say a word.”

His mother, a teacher, and his father, an opposition politician, inspired the belief that “social justice is something you defend, enjoy, do for yourself and for others, pay a price and go.” . She criticized the regime with schoolmates while living “in fear that my father might die, and then in fear for myself.”

As a student in England, she remembers overcoming prejudices, even an occasion when her teacher summoned her after earning the best points. “There was always the surprise of how much I could do – it was presumed because you were an African and a woman, you can’t be that good.”

She joined political debates but became disillusioned by the tight focus in the UK. «While u Greenham Township the protesters were worried [US] nuclear weapons, we were being killed in Uganda by small arms, ”she says.“ Radical feminists have talked about the autonomy of the body, but I thought ‘when it comes to issues of political liberation, end dictatorships, fight against to poverty? “They never did.”

Back in Uganda, he sought to tackle corruption and exploitation. She ran for parliament against a minister in charge of her own party who thought she was not working hard enough for her constituents. “Male candidates have made big demonstrations on a podium,” she says. “I went to barracks, to people’s kitchens and I talked to women.” He won convincingly.

Alongside values, it reflects on other important leadership skills. “To understand people and how to work with them. You have to be able to know what you can deliver, what you need from others and what they need from you. ”

Another important quality is resilience. “You have to be adaptable,” she says. “Everything throws you something new, and you have to be able to fall and get up quickly.” I’ve had my falls several times. ”

While at Oxfam International, he noted his move from the humanitarian aid agency to the campaign group, giving a greater voice to subsidiaries in developing countries. “We were loved for the work we did to support the communities to stand on their own two feet. But this was simply not enough. Most of the poor were in middle-income countries. The question was inequality. “

To bring about reform, he sought to influence the world’s elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in the Swiss Alps, heavily armed with evidence and arguments. This sparked a reflection on another leadership trait that she believes is essential: authenticity.

“I can walk into a room with 30 to 40 men in black and gray clothes and a few corporate women in black clothes,” she says. “In my village, we wear green, yellow and red.” The default is to mix and match and be less threatening. But why be a little different? I will overcome my fear and continue with my message in the most acute way. It can be different. I never hesitated to be myself. ”

The last part of his tenure at Oxfam has been overshadowed by allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by front-line staff, even after the Haiti earthquake – though controlled by his office in the UK and elsewhere. much prior to his tenure.

The charity was criticized for a slow response once the claims were revealed. But Byanyima says she has convinced her council to appoint an external commission to examine what went wrong, make recommendations, share them publicly and implement them.

Then in 2019 he won the race to manage UNAids, which was also under pressure to reform following allegations of staff persecution. He emphasized his experience in managing crisis management, and the need to focus on campaigning and working with community groups.

He also exploited his HIV experiences, which devastated Uganda. The disease killed her brother, whom she says died eventually not from lack of treatment but from stigma, which had deterred her from attending a clinic regularly.

Four decades after AIDS was first identified, and continues to kill up to 1 million people a year, it is focused on community activism to guide the response and to mobilize governments to introduce more policies. illuminate.

Some argue that agencies like Oxfam and UNAids need strong technical programs to provide services, as well as community activism and campaigns. For Byanyima, based on his own skills, the priority is on the latter.

Reflecting on his own management approach, Byanyima says, “You face power up front, analyze who has it, build structures where it’s most shared and a voice is given to everyone. It’s a leadership-type servant, where you he puts himself behind perhaps to let others lead, and sees himself as a facilitator of others. ”

Three questions for Winnie Byanyima

Who is your leadership hero?

Michelle bachelet. She has values, cares about social justice and is a feminist. She was the victim of a brutal dictatorship that turned her grief into public service; a medical practitioner who served in the public health system and studied military strategy to understand the minds of those who had killed their father. She has been president of Chile, fought against inequality, has been a champion of reducing inequality in Latin America and has reformed the education and health systems. When it was time to leave power, he respected the constitution. He lives a simple life and his leadership style is humble. It’s the kind of boss I respect.

What was the first leadership lesson you learned?

My father always insisted that you defend yourself for what is right and pay the price if you have to. Don’t follow what everyone else is doing. It’s not about being popular, it’s about values ​​and doing what’s right.

If you’re not a CEO, what are you?

I love gardening and community organizing, working especially with young people with learning difficulties.

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