|Winnie with her adorable son Anselm. [Photos: MAXWELL AGWANDA/STANDARD]|
WINNIE BYANYIMA is a seasoned politician, polished diplomat and the first Aeronautical engineer in Uganda. But what she loves most is being a mom and wife to Uganda’s opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye. HELLEN MISEDA had a one on one with her.
When the books of history are written, her name will feature prominently alongside giants like the late Nobel Laureate prof Wangari Mathai, prof Maria Nzomo and prof Mugo Michere — women of firsts, who chose to pursue causes bigger than themselves.
Winnie Byanyima is not only a seasoned political, ferocious activist, polished diplomat, but is also a doting mother and the loving wife of Uganda’s leading opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye.
She was the first female Aeronautical engineer in Uganda as well as the first African woman to win a Zonta International’s Amelia Earhart Fellowship for post-graduate Aeronautical Studies.
Accolades aside, what stands out about Winnie Byanyima is her passion for social justice and women’s rights.
Winnie was in the country two weeks ago in her capacity as the UNDP Director for Gender and Development for the three-day high-level regional round table on women’s political leadership in Kenya, focusing on how to effectively implement the affirmative action constitutional provision.
When I met her for an interview at a Nairobi hotel, I found her with her 12-year-old son Anselm at the lobby engaged in an intense mommy-son moment, probably. After the pleasantries we set off the interview.
With the passage of the new Constitution, Kenya has opened space for women’s participation in decision-making within the three arms of government through the provision of a gender quota. This provision requires that no more than 2/3 of the members of each elected and appointed body shall be from one gender.
Winnie led a high-powered delegation from African countries, which are pioneers in implementing affirmative action for women to share experiences with Kenya.
“Our mission is to bring experiences of the East African countries and South Africa so that Kenyan women and Kenyan institutions such as the IEBC and Parliament can learn from the best practices and also from the mistakes made,” she said during the interview. Winnie has been a director at the UNDP leading a global team since 2006; a position that few women have managed to reach.
Before joining the UN, she was a prominent leader in pro-democracy and women’s rights struggles and was instrumental in winning the constitutional quota for women in politics in Uganda. She is a founder member of the Forum for Democratic Change, the leading opposition party.
Winnie was born in Mbarara District, in western Uganda to Boniface Byanyima, one-time national chairman of the Democratic Party in Uganda, and Gertrude Byanyima, a teacher, political activist and businesswoman.
Winnie attended Mount Saint Mary’s College Namagunga, near Kampala and landed a scholarship to study Aeronautical Engineering in the UK.
After completing her studies, she worked as a flight engineer for the now-defunct Uganda Airlines but when Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni started the 1981 to 1986 National Resistance Army War, Winnie left her job and joined him. The two actually grew up together.
Speaking of Museveni, I inquired whether she had a ‘fling’ with him at one point and she chose not to comment instead saying that she has known him all her life.
Winnie has been an active participant in Ugandan politics and has been elected three times to represent Mbarara Municipality in the Constituent Assembly and Parliament.
Someone who always tries new waters, in 2004, she was appointed director of the newly-established Women, Gender and Development Directorate at the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a position she served until she was appointed as director of Gender and Development in UNDP in November 2006.
With so much going for her, one is bound to wonder how she juggles it all and whether she faces any challenges.
“Like other organisations, UNDP has few women at the level of director and above, but we are working hard to achieve gender parity in senior positions. Currently, the two top positions at UNDP are held by women. Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand is the UNDP administrator and Rebeca Greenspan, a former vice president of Costa Rica is her deputy. It is not easy living in the US with my son while my husband is thousands of kilometres away. But somehow I manage. I take the view that I am privileged to occupy such a powerful platform where I can pursue my passion for social justice and actually make a difference in the lives of poor people,” she disclosed.
Kizza has had a turbulent political career thanks to Museveni’s high-handedness; in that regard I sought to know what has been her lowest moment.
“My lowest moment was when I got a call while I was attending a board meeting in Washingon DC and was told that Kizza was arrested and charged with terrorism, treason, illegal possession of firearms and rape! The rape charge was the most painful to me. After several months in court, the charge was thrown out of court and the judge condemned the chief of criminal investigations for lying under oath to incriminate Kizza. All the state witnesses were discredited in court. Those months were painful. I thank God that Anselm our son was too young to understand what was going on at that time,” she shared.
What next for Winnie? I proded.
“I don’t know. I do not look far when setting my goals. I just set myself tough targets and I strive to achieve them. I always try to do the best now. I do not worry about the future. I always know what I am doing will lead to another door. You see when I was in parliament; I never knew I would end up at the AU. And while at the AU, I never knew the UN would be next. For now I am happy with what I am doing,”said the soft-spoken diplomat.
In her free time, this self-driven politician loves to bond with her son.