Born in Mbarara District in the Western Region of Uganda, Winnie Byanyima is the daughter of Boniface Byanyima – a former politician in Uganda and Gertrude Byanyima, who was a teacher. The 59-year-old holds a Bachelors degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Manchester and a Masters degree in mechanical engineering from Cranfield University, UK.
Byanyima first worked as a flight engineer for Uganda Airlines. She later left her job and joined Ugandan Bush War, an armed rebellion started by President Yoweri Museveni that ran from 1981 to 1986. After the war, she served as Uganda’s ambassador to France from 1989 to 1994. Thereafter, she returned home and became active in politics.
She was part of the team that drafted the 1995 Ugandan Constitution. She also successfully ran for the Mbarara Municipality parliamentary seat and went on to serve two consecutive terms. She was then appointed Director of Women, Gender and Development at the African Union before being appointed as director of the gender team in the Bureau of Development Policy at United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2006.
Byanyima has served on numerous global boards and commissions including African Capacity Building Foundation and the International Center for Research on Women. On May 1, 2013, she began a five-year term leading Oxfam International making her the first African to lead the organisation. Oxfam is an international confederation of charitable organisations whose aim is alleviating poverty.
In 2015, she co-chaired the world economic forum in Davos, Switzerland. She used this platform to call for action in narrowing the gap between the rich and poor. In 2016, former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed her to the high level panel on Access to Medicines.
Byanyima is also a signatory to her country’s 1985 Peace Agreement and has helped broker and support women’s participation in peace processes in countries like South Africa, Burundi, Sudan and other countries emerging from conflict. She also co-founded a 60-member Global Gender and Climate Alliance of Civil Society Bilateral and Multilateral Organisations and chaired a UN-wide task force on gender aspects of the Millennium Development Goals and on climate change.
Byanyima is married to Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye and together they have a son named Anselm.