University of Manchester - Winnie Byanyima Awarded Honorary Degree, October 2016

Honorary degree for Oxfam director as University celebrates Foundation Day

The University of Manchester awarded an honorary degree to the Executive Director of Oxfam International, Winnie Byanyima, as part of its Foundation Day celebrations on Wednesday 19 October 2016.

Winnie, who is also an alumna of the University, used the occasion of the ceremony to give a Foundation Lecture entitled ‘Advancing Women’s Rights in an Unequal World: A personal perspective’, in which she outlined some of the experiences of her unique career in politics and international development.

She also received an honorary doctorate alongside Lord David Alliance, Professor Dame Sue Bailey, Mr Anil Ruia and Sir Norman Stoller as the University celebrated the anniversary of the bringing together of the Victoria University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) in 2004, to form The University of Manchester.

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University, said: “I am delighted that at this year’s Foundation Day celebrations we welcomed back an alumna, Ms Winnie Byanyima, to deliver our most prestigious lecture and to award her an honorary doctorate.

“Winnie’s drive to promote the roles of women and work to address global inequalities fully align with the University’s own activities.

A transcript of Ms Byanyima's speech can be found below.

A video recording of the event can be found here:

More information about the honorary degree can be found here:


Manchester Foundation Day Lecture | Advancing women’s rights in an unequal world: A personal perspective

Remarks as prepared


Thank you for the great honour that you have given me in awarding me this honorary degree, and the privilege of delivering the Foundation Day lecture. 

In this lecture I want to explore themes of women’s rights and of economic inequality; of the state of my continent of Africa. I want to talk about my mother and my grandmother. And reflecting on their stories, and mine, I hope to say something about women’s rights in Africa, something about how women have navigated political and economic transitions, of struggles, of survival and of hope. 

I’m delighted to give this speech at Manchester University, my almer mater. Like many young people, university was my first opportunity to consider for myself, what my life experience told me about the wider world; to find my politics, my voice.

And it was a process of trial and error!

I arrived here on a rainy Manchester day. I was a refugee fleeing the brutal regime of Idi Amin in Uganda. Idi Amin had come to power when I was 12 years old and his  repression was so often aimed at us, as women and girls: from sexual crimes by soldiers to arbitrary rulings against lipstick, miniskirts or wigs. Throughout our teens, we lived in fear of being kidnapped or assaulted.  

So although I was studying aeronautical engineering I spent most of my time in the Reynolds library Anthropology section. I read anything I could on social justice and political struggles in the global south, from the Sandinistas to the Vietnamese and the Mozambican revolutionaries.

I came to this university a refugee and I went home a revolutionary, a spark burning inside me for political change. In the last week of my exams I was contacted by the national resistance army in Uganda asking me to sign up. 

My response was immediate: “Let me finish my two exams – then I’ll join you”.

This was a feminist move in more ways than simply me bucking a gender stereotype, to go and join a resistance. It was a reflection of my realization that the political oppression and inequality I had experienced was inherently gendered - and the revolution must be gendered too.

And so it was - in time.  When we won, when I took my place in parliament, I was able to work with other women to ensure a constitution with women’s rights at its heart.


The fact that I found myself in a position to be drafting my own country’s constitution is still incredible to me. Even more so when you consider how vastly different my opportunities were from that of my grandmother and even my mother. 

My grandmother was born at some point in the beginning of the 20th Century. She was married off as a teenager, about 14, to her father’s good friend as the youngest wife in a polygamous marriage.  This was considered an honor, but when widowed at just 23, she suffered the indignity of being “inherited” by her own stepson (a young man of her own age) who was now seen as her husband.

It was her rebellion against this that defined the rest of her life: She challenged the cultural tradition by claiming her freedom from this humiliating marriage.  But whilst she was allowed to go, she was unable to take anything with her - not even her children. 

She then lived as a single woman, a pastoral nomad as our people were, impelled by her economic livelihood to range far and wide and to own more and more cattle.  She died well past her 90th birthday as a wealthy woman.  And yet, the personal cost to her was great. Traditional laws and government policies; family and custom.  All were against her. 

My mother, taken away from her own mother at age 5, was raised and educated by French Canadian nuns. 

The catholic convent where my mother spent her childhood may not seem the most radical or political of environments, but in many ways, for its time, it was. It was a space for women to support and learn from each other, and she and her classmates came to see themselves as an important generation for their country: she became a primary school teacher at the time of independence and was a part of nation building through her education of the first independent generation. She came to understand that she could have a public role.

So when she married and had children and gave up teaching she didn’t lose sense of her public role. She went into community organizing. She founded village women’s clubs fighting for girl’s education and against early marriage. 

And in time this political and social leadership became economic leadership once again. She opened a hardware shop in our local town. Not just the first business on the street owned by a woman, but the first owned by an African.

Her experience of women’s rights was inherently communal. 

I would join her in these community groups and from this came conviction that to experience power as a woman, was something both personal and political. 

And so, when I myself was grown and in our national parliament, I co-founded the Forum for Women in Democracy. Our success in increasing women’s political participation and entrenching women’s rights in the constitution inspired women across Africa. The proudest moment of my life was when I was asked to speak for the women of Africa at the opening plenary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. I felt the honour and burden of a rich inheritance of struggles for equality, dignity, human rights.


From inherited wife to school teacher to Member of Parliament - my family story is one of emancipation at breakneck speed.

It shows a trend across generations for more political and public action. My grandmother’s struggle was inherently private, my mother worked with peers to improve the fortunes of the next generation of girls.

And me? I have made my own way but I stand on their shoulders. 

I’ve devoted my life to organizing politically with women, in Africa and now globally. I do that proudly leading Oxfam – a collective movement of organizations around the world that exists to challenge the misuse and abuse of power. Oxfam has a rich history of its own. 

I feel priviledged. Oxfam’s goal is a just world without poverty and it is a fight we are determined to win – step-by-step – and always in solidarity with others. 
In many ways, this story is reflective of wider progress for women in Africa. 

Many of Africa’s formal laws and policies for women’s rights are some of the best in the world. 

Of all the world's regions, Sub-Saharan Africa has made the most substantial progress in the last 20 years towards women’s political representation - increasing from 9.7 per cent to 24 per cent. Not nearly enough - but progress.

Like my mother, women are running and owning businesses. The majority of African companies have at least one woman board director.

And her struggle to fight for girls’ education is being taken forward by others to this day, with real results: Across Africa the gap between primary school enrolment for girls and boys has narrowed significantly. It’s not perfect, but for every 100 boys in school, there are 93 girls now too. A big difference from the time of my own mother’s education.

And yet…

In other ways our story is one that contrasts with the experiences of so many more women - even today.

Many social norms that harm women remain unchanged and go unchallenged. Formal laws and constitutional rights may exist but they do not yet reach into many communities, households or businesses.

Women still face discrimination, violence, and early marriage. 40% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa are married before the age of 18. Nearly half of all African women experience physical or sexual violence or both.


Social norms are changing too slowly, but it is economic inequality that threatens to choke our struggle totally and fling it into reverse.

There is no easy fix to this. The global economic system is built on fundamental inequalities between men and women: the control of resources, discriminations in employment and earnings, and divisions in social and economic participation. Even how we measure the economy, GDP, excludes much of the contribution of women.

To strengthen women’s rights we must turn the global economic system upside down. It’s not enough to expect women to work harder for a fundamentally unequal economy.  We have to ask how the economy can work better for women.

Firstly, a transformed economic system must be based upon women and men having equal work opportunities and rewards. 

In Africa 75 percent of women’s work is in the informal sector – think of the small stalls selling vegetables or seamstresses working by the roadside. They have no benefits like sick pay or maternity leave or pensions and often work for no pay at all on family farms.

And when women are in formal work, the wage gap between them and men is still a universal characteristic of labour markets. 

The IMF says that since the 2008 global economic crisis, gender wage gaps, and the precariousness of women’s employment, have worsened in many regions - South Asia, East Asia, and Africa.

Secondly, we must dismantle the legal and cultural barriers that prevent women achieving economic power.

A study from the World Bank found that at least 90% of economies have at least one legal difference between women and men that restricts women’s economic opportunities. 

For women in poor countries, the right to own and use land is particularly crucial. 

Roughly 1.6 billion women depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, and for the livelihoods of their families. They grow food for millions, but gain little economic benefit or security if they cannot own their single biggest most reliable asset. Land.

Thirdly, a transformed economic system must recognize, reduce and redistribute the unpaid care work that women do to subsidize the formal economy. 

In all regions globally, women spend at least twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work. Some of it is pure drudgery. Some of it is done out of love. All of it is under-counted and under-valued. 

Accessible and affordable childcare is the most important investment that can be made to ease women’s unpaid care work, along with high-quality public services, including healthcare and education. 

Of course men must be encouraged to take up care work too. Traditional ideas about masculinity and femininity must be challenged. We can see this is starting to happen, with groups in many countries mobilizing around promoting fatherhood and men’s responsibilities at home. 


But whilst I can list policy solutions or the requirements I have of employers and governments, the truth is that rights are demanded and not gifted. 

Women have worked together, collectively, throughout the 20th century to win greater rights - economically in cooperatives, collectively in unions, and politically to influence governments and the UN. In this way they’ve won the right to vote, through to the recognition of rape as a war crime under the International Criminal Court.  

Through the work of collectives, female workers have won rights and farmers have lifted themselves and their families out of poverty. 

As I saw from my mother’s community groups, when women organize they come up with holistic solutions, knowing that their lives and survival can not be separated into economics and social issues, or what happens in the household and in business. Local issues could not be divorced from national issues. This kind of organizing, and active involvement of women for the well-being of their communities, has created some of the biggest social changes in history. 

This space for collective action –to claim rights – must be protected above all.  

I worry that it is under threat, by Globalization, with its long value chains that are structured to diffuse accountability upwards and push risk downwards by the rise of insecure, casual, precarious work. 

Why do you think Oxfam is fighting economic inequality so hard? And getting so much resistance? Because it is the Trojan Horse of political capture. It is how elites grow to dominate the political debate. It is how citizens’ movements and civil society finds themselves criticized, impeded, even vilified to the point of criminialization. 

I disagree but I can understand why ordinary citizens are attracted now to the political extremes – because so many of them have been pushed to the economic margins!

The ever growing dominance of elites in political debate and closing of democratic and civil society space. 

The closing of public space – the muffling of women’s voice – the shackling effects of discrimination – is a direct threat to women’s power – which is inherently collective.

I am therefore delighted to be receiving such an honor from the university that gave me the space to organize with other women, and to think freely about the repression I’d experienced and the political response that was needed to it in my country and in Africa.

Long may that space and freedom in our universities be protected. 

I value this recognition from Manchester, not as a mark of individual achievement, but as an invitation to be forever part of the collective that is the University of Manchester. 

Thank you