By the 1990s, many women were still relegated to the backdoor life of domestic chores like cooking, maintaining households and farming while men, considered the stronger sex, dominated public life.
Women that occupied public offices were few, and did not aggresively confront gender discrimination, perhaps, in fear of antagonising time-old social, political and administrative structures.
But that trend was to gradually change as a certain Winnie Byanyima dared to delve into the political terrain, when she was elected to represent Mbarara Municipality in the 1994 Constituent Assembly elections.
Winnie, as she is fondly called by many was born to Boniface and Gertrude Byanyima in a family of seven [one passed away], in Ruti, around 4km along the Mbarara-Kabale highway.
She went to St Hellen’s Primary School, a walkable distance from Ruti trading centre, for her primary education.
For her O and A levels respectively, she was at Mt St Mary’s, Namagunga and Kings College Budo before going to the University of Manchester for her Bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering.
With a first class degree, she became the first female Ugandan to become an aeronautical engineer - it was probably a sign of what was to come from her.
She later added a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering [Energy Conservation] from Cranfield University, to her academic honours.
When Anthony Byanyima, a younger brother, speaks about her, he does so in a very calculated way.
He thinks deeply before answering questions, emphasising that there was nothing extraordinary about his sister’s childhood, save for being “a very intelligent girl.”
He describes her sister as an “extremely focused person who likes winning, hates losing and will work very hard to make sure that she achieves what she wants.”
Hectic schedules for most of the family members have restricted them to meeting only during holidays like the Christmas season.
Winnie’s marriage to Dr Besigye
Winnie’s marriage to the Dr Kizza Besigye might have been a quiet affair then, but it later turned out to be a topic of discussion, especially among the political elite.
Anthony, who led the wedding’s organising committee, says his sister demanded for “a wedding that is as small as possible”, despite the family having the resources to manage one with pomp.
“It is probably the smallest wedding I have ever attended and like all marriages in our family, it was a personal decision,” the brother responds as I probe about whether her choice of husband could have caused a stir in the family.
Winnie endeared herself to many because of her passion on gender and women’s rights issues. And the women’s rights struggle would sound hollow if it was cited, without reference to Forum for Women in Democracy [Fowode], a women’s rights group, she helped found.
Ms Patricia Munaabi, the executive director, Fowode, says, the roots of the organisation date back to a Women’s Caucus group that Winnie was part of during the Constituent Assembly.
The caucus advocated for a gender sensitive constitution.
After the promulgation of the 1995 Constitution, there was need to build on the gains made in terms of gender issues and this, Ms Munaabi says, gradually led to the formation of Fowode.
“The nine women who come together to form Fowode after the CA formed a gender working group to look at each clause [in the constitution] and ensure that it is as gender sensitive as possible,” Ms Munaabi says of the ideas that Byanyima and eight other women had in mind as they set out.
The group was boosted by advocacy support from civil society groups.
Winnie, who started out as chairperson of the interim committee and later became the board chairperson until the time she bowed out in 2000.
Mentor of women in their rights’ struggle
Ms Munaabi, who joined Fowode as a volunteer in 1997, attributes her career success to the mentoring she received from Winnie.
“She helped me learn about the work culture and passed on a lot to of ideals on women’s rights and the importance of thinking critically about what we wanted to do,” Munaabi says.
“Winnie is a results-oriented person who not only craves results but good results, she is a perfectionist.”
A culture that Byanyima initiated at Fowode that can go a long way in telling the type of woman she is, was a requirement for each member to read a book every week.
“Every week, one of us was given a book to read, do research, come back and present something and that helped us to get a better understanding of work,” Munaabi recalls.
Owing to her busy schedule at the UNDP, her contribution to the organisation she helped find a footing has since waned.
They have hardly been in touch but once in a while, she will give them ideas in terms of strategic, regional and global thinking.
Fighting the corrupt
Winnie started showing her political nous as Parliament geared for the censure of ministers entangled in corruption allegations in 1998.
The ministers in question, Jim Muhwezi and Sam Kutesa, are socially well-to-do and politically well-connected as the former had participated in the bush war that brought President Museveni to power, while the other joined the movement soon after.
Someone sober, strong-headed, likeable, bold and charismatic needed to rock the boat and she surely rose to the occasion.
She was part of a group of MPs who successfully advocated for the two ministers to resign, perhaps, setting the stage for her future confrontations with the government.
Democratic Party president, Norbert Mao, who was Gulu Municipality MP then and actively participated in the censure motion, says the “courage that she [Winnie] showed was an inspiration to many people to support the cause.”
“Despite being a strong NRM supporter then, she was very much not bothered about political issues but about the fight against corruption,” Mao reminisces about the censure that took the country by storm.
Mao adds that Winnie’s easy access to the “President assured some MPs not to fear the ministers because they were with someone who could speak to Museveni”.
Winnie would pay for her role in the censure motion as it earned her a sacking from the Movement Secretariat, where she was the Director of Information. According to State House, she was working against the establishment.
Though she was an MP before, the 2001 elections proved that Byanyima was not restricted to the world of women’s rights but could also take on men in the volatile spectre of politics.
Having fallen out with the ruling government, she exacerbated the fallout by tying the knot with Dr Besigye. She vigorously campaigned for him in the 2001 and 2006 presidential races, as regime loyalists were bent on thwarting his bid.
Yusuf Ngoma Ngime, then President Museveni’s blue-eyed boy and Mbarara Resident District Commissioner, was fronted to run against her.
Violence, name-calling, machinations and accusations and counter–accusations marred the race. She emerged victor in the hotly contested race, defeating Ngoma Ngime by the narrowest of margins: 9,980 to 9,816 votes, winning by only 164 votes.
Images of a stunning Winnie, elegantly donning African wear, atop open vehicles, speaking fervently about “Change” are still vivid in the memories of Mbarara voters.
Government was not to take the loss lying down as it filed a suit disputing the results which Winnie ultimately won.
In Parliament, Byanyima left a mark with passionate debates about corruption and gender issues.
However, in 2004, she sprung a surprise to her detrators and admirers alike when she resigned her parliamentary seat to join the African Union.
Her brother blames the pressures of juggling court cases and motherly responsibilities as something that could have taken a toll on his sister, forcing her to opt out of politics.
“You have a son to look after, but today you are in court and the next day you might be in prison. It was too much for her and because she had to find a good environment for her son to grow up, she had to leave,” Anthony says.
“Winnie had never been disappointed in her life but the only thing I think that disappointed her was her political career because she felt defeated by the Movement and that is why she left,” he adds.
Besigye’s thoughts on Byanyima’s career
Dr Kizza Besigye, her husband, echoes the thoughts about their son as having influenced her decision to take a sabbatical from politics.
“She made the judgement because of the extreme harassment she was put under which was traumatising for our son who needed a peaceful environment to grow up,” Dr Besigye says, noting that it was a difficult decision because her supporters would feel disappointed.
However, the brother files a resounding warning shot to those who think they have seen the last of Winnie’s political career.
“People might be excited about her appointment as Executive Director, Oxfam, but I am 100 per cent sure she will be back into politics because it is her calling,” Anthony warns.
“Winnie has never left anybody in doubt about her passion for public service and changing the current situation,” Dr Besigye echoes, declining to speculate about her future decisions. He, however, pledges to support her if she ever makes a political come-back.
“She is a very social and engaging person which is the reason she was very popular in her constituency. Winnie’s assertiveness has often led to her to be at cross-purposes with some authorities,” the retired colonel says.
Dr Besigye admits that though their “relationship has been largely interfered by our politics”, Winnie has been a good mother to their son whom he says she has “largely raised alone.”
On leaving politics, she was appointed head of the Directorate of Women, Gender and Development at the African Union until she joined the United Nations Development Programme in 2006 as the Director for the Gender Team in the Bureau for Development Policy.
Her latest appointment as executive director at Oxfam International will add to a reputation that gains weight each passing year.
Dr Besigye remarks Winnie’s Oxfam appointment is “an exciting responsibility.”
He adds, “It creates a wonderful opportunity to be at the centre of direct service delivery to people in distress across the world for anybody interested in social justice causes.” It looks like the book on Winnie’s life is yet to bring us more and interesting surprises with each chapter.