Ms Winnie Byanyima’s appointment as the executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS) is worth celebrating. I wish I could celebrate her as a Ugandan. Many people have rightly noted that her appointment is a win for Uganda. But I choose to celebrate her as a sister, an amazing woman who makes being at the top in the international arena seem so normal and common place, even when it is clearly not.
I wrote a piece when Ms Byanyima was appointed the executive director of Oxfam, suggesting ways she could use her time at the helm of that organisation positively. And I believe she has, otherwise she would not be appointed to head the highest office in the fight against HIV/Aids. I have made it my mission to celebrate women who excel because it always raises the excellence bar. I would be celebrating any woman from any country appointed to that office.
It is easy for most of us to think that there is no need to drum this win as a win for women because many women now have numerous platforms and occupy critical decision-making positions. But the reality is that those women are still far too few at the top. In much of my research on women in public life in Uganda, particularly politics, the question I encountered numerous times was whether the presence of women in critical positions like that translated into tangible benefits for women as a group. Many people argued that the women who end up occupying such positions are exceptional women with incredible networks and backing from the right places. No wonder, not long ago, Ms Byanyima had to defend her Oxfam job, that it was not true Mr Museveni had given her the job.
The issue of tangible benefits for women is one that we must deal with. On the one hand, it is important that women are accountable, exemplary and use those positions to act as role models for other women, empower younger women, be the voice of poor women, support each other and bring issues that matter for women to the decision-making table. On the other hand, it is unrealistic to expect that every woman can claim personal benefit because a woman is at the top. It is such expectation that creates disillusion about women’s role and contribution.
There is evidence that there are benefits, no doubt about that. While interviewing women in important positions, one thing was clear. Majority of these women did not rise out of luck, they were prepared by their families and given the opportunities to excel and worked hard. Their families played a critical role in who they became.
Ms Byanyima, whether deliberately or not, has influenced countless women to participate in politics and advocacy for gender equality and women’s empowerment. Her fight for gender equality and social justice at the highest level has had incredible impact on some women. Out of 22 women I interviewed in my research into women’s participation in public life in Uganda in 2015, selected because they were in the news within a given period of time, four women told me Ms Winnie Byanyima had inspired them and had a lot to do with their current role. This was through her work as a parliamentarian, patron of the Change Agents, founding member of Forum for Women in Democracy (FOWODE) and her participation in Uganda’s premium talk show, the Capital Gang on Capital FM. It is possible, Ms Byanyima does not know the extent to which she has influenced these women, and may not have directly done so.
The question of tangible benefits may be difficult to quantify. Like I have said elsewhere, the issue of benefit cannot be individualised or personalised. Women leaders, I found out in my research, do a lot for their communities despite incredible challenges, but people barely see their contribution. And we have to help people see it through anecdotal evidence, otherwise we will spend the rest of our lives explaining why women should occupy decision-making positions. What I know is that we never really know how these positions, without even meaning to, inspire younger women and motivate them to work hard.
Doing her job well at that global level is the best way to repay Ugandans by showcasing quality human resource out of Uganda, which in the end could open doors for other Ugandans. Ms Byanyima’s achievement is not only her family’s pride but for many of us. I know more women are inspired by what my friend termed as ‘Winnie’s never-ending rise and rise and rise’. It makes the world seem so generous to women, and that is worth celebrating. Congratulations Winnie.
Dr Maractho is the head and senior lecturer, Department of Journalism and Media
studies at UCU. email@example.com