The University of Manchester awarded an honorary degree to Winnie Byanyima, the Executive Director of Oxfam International, during their Foundation Day celebrations.
On Wednesday 19th of October, Winnie, an alumna of the university, gave a speech on the ‘Advancing of Women’s Rights in an Unequal World: A personal perspective’.
As well as leading Oxfam International, Winnie also led Uganda’s first parliamentary women’s caucus, which championed ground-breaking gender equality provisions in the country’s 1995 post-conflict constitution. Alongside this she was a signatory to her country’s 1985 peace agreement.
She has a BSc in Aeronautical Engineering from Manchester and was on campus earlier this year to launch the University’s Global Development Institute, Europe’s largest research and teaching institute dedicated to international development.
Speaking of receiving her honorary degree, Winnie said it was a great honour “that my alma mater recognises the work that I have done—but it’s very much an honour for the African women that I have worked with and with whom we have struggled, won rights, and changed our communities and our countries.
“For Manchester to keep sharing knowledge and giving opportunities to young people from developing countries is just amazing—I am so proud to be an alumna!”
Winnie reflected on her own experiences as a student at the university and growing up in Uganda. The speech focused heavily on the debt she owed to her mother and grandmother’s legacies as empowered women in an unequal economic landscape.
After Winnie’s speech the floor was opened up to questions from the audience.
Naa Acquah, General Secretary of The University of Manchester’s Students’ Union, asked the first question of the night: “What advice would you give to young women in Africa and in the diaspora living across the world, about what they can do to progress women’s equality?”
Winnie answered Naa’s question by sharing her experiences of when she arrived here in Manchester as a student.
When she arrived she wanted to be a part of women’s groups, and she went to the Union, there first she found a group that said they were radical women.
When she got there she said the conversation was mainly around women’s bodies and the right to own their bodies and she thought “yeah, okay, next? And they didn’t say anything more than that”, so she left.
Then she saw another group and they said they were the Socialist Feminist group in the union, and she went; she spoke of how they “talked and talked and talked, and I liked it and I was inspired, but they kept talking about issues of women workers and I kept waiting, I didn’t know about women workers, I just knew about women farmers, they never talked about women in rural Africa, it was all about women in industrial societies, I felt left out and I left.”
Then she joined the peace activists, who went to Greenham Common, and again she said they “sat and talked and talked, all about the threat of nuclear war” but that “she kept saying to them, wait a moment, in Africa we are being killed by small and light weapons, what do you have to say about that?”, to which she said they would “listen respectively and then continue talking about the threat of nuclear weapons”.
Winnie said she felt like her own issues were not being addressed, but that slowly she started to realise that women’s rights cut across every continent, and that she could be a “nomad like my grandmother and keep traversing these movements, pushing for my interests.”
She ended her response to Naa saying, “that’s my answer to you about a women whose roots are in Africa or in another region, living in this region wanting to connect—you will never find one place where all your issues will be addressed, but go and connect on the issues that matter to you.”
She ended calling for women to “traverse various groups, be a nomad, sample, venture”.
Winnie received her 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.
“It is also an honour to be able to recognise the great contributions to society made by Lord David Alliance, Professor Dame Sue Bailey, Mr Anil Ruia, and Sir Norman Stoller with the conferment of their honorary doctorates.”