Ugandan Winifred “Winnie” Byanyima is the new executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, after the previous incumbent left accused of serious mismanagement.
Winifred “Winnie” Byanyima was on 14 August formally announced as the new executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). Byanyima replaces Gunilla Carlsson, who had been the interim leader of UNAIDS since Michel Sidibé stepped down earlier in 2019, says a Daily Maverick report.
“I am honoured to be joining UNAIDS as the executive director at such a critical time in the response to HIV,” said Byanyima. “The end of Aids as a public health threat by 2030 is a goal that is within the world’s reach, but I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge ahead. Working with all its partners, UNAIDS must continue to speak up for the people left behind and champion human rights as the only way to end the epidemic.”
The report says Byanyima, who has no high-level experience in HIV, had been the executive director of Oxfam International since 2013. Prior to that, she served for seven years as the director of gender and development at the United Nations Development Programme.
“Byanyima began her career as a champion of marginalised communities and women 30 years ago as a member of parliament in the National Assembly of Uganda. In 2004, she became the director of women and development at the African Union Commission, working on the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, an international human rights instrument that became an important tool for reducing the disproportionate effect of HIV on the lives of women in Africa,” said UNAIDS.
Byanyima holds an advanced degree in mechanical engineering (in energy conservation and the environment) and an undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering.
However, the report says, Byanyima takes the reins at UNAIDS when it is at its most precarious. Sidibé, who is now the minister of health and social affairs in Mali, left the position under a cloud for his shockingly poor management of serious sexual harassment cases at UNAIDS. Sidibé also weakened UNAIDS to the point where there had been talk of collapsing this crucial organisation into the World Health Organisation.
Advocacy organisation AIDS-Free World was one of the first to congratulate Byanyima, but cautioned that she is joining UNAIDS at a decisive moment. “She has a major internal governance issue to confront in her first months on the job,” said the organisation. “Ms Byanyima must ensure that Sidibé-era members of the leadership team are no longer able to influence the institutional culture of UNAIDS,” the AIDS-Free World said.
“This is wonderful news. Winnie is an African feminist who worked hard to transform Oxfam International in the wake of sex abuse scandals that affected vulnerable girls,” author and activist Sisonke Msimang is quoted in Health-e News as saying. The report says Byanyima’s appointment has come as a relief to many after the departure Sidebé following the tornado of sexual harassment and bullying scandals that rocked the organisation.
“UNAIDS will also need shaking up, not just because of the toxic environment that permeated the organisation in recent years, but because the key drivers of HIV infection have not gone away. Women and girls continue to be extremely vulnerable to infection and to its effects, because they continue to have too few choices about who they will have sex with and under what conditions,” Msimang added.
Section27’s executive director Umunyana Rugege said her organisation “warmly welcomes” the appointment Byanyima “the first woman to hold the position in the history of the organisation”.
“It is significant that she has a long and distinguished history of civil society activism and that she is an African woman. New HIV infections continue to be high amongst young African women,” she said.
“We look forward to an African feminist and human rights defender taking over the role and addressing the very urgent issues that we have previously highlighted, including adequate funding for the HIV response and institutional changes within UNAIDS to ensure the safety dignity of women working in UN agencies,” added Rugege.
Treatment Action Campaign’s national chair Sibongile Tshabalala said in the report that it is particularly significant that Byanyima hails from sub-Saharan Africa, “an area that is the worst hit region (by HIV) in the world”. “We welcome her passion and intense motivation to see the end of Aids deaths and new HIV infections in the near future,” said Tshabalala.
Msimang added: “Activists will be supporting the new executive director, but we will continue to be vigilant – one woman alone cannot fix centuries of patriarchy. But if ever there were someone worthy of this task, it’s Winnie.”