Q&A: Oxfam's Byanyima on why the G7 should have feminist international policies

Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima speaks during an interview on Feb. 11 in New York. Photo by: REUTERS / Andrew Kelly

WHISTLER, Canada — Canada convened a Gender Advisory Council as part of its G-7 presidency to help focus the bloc’s agenda on women and girls, and provide recommendations to seven of the world’s strongest economies on integrating gender equality into their economic and development policy.

Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima was tapped to serve on the 21-member group chaired by Melinda Gates and Isabelle Hudon, Canadian ambassador to France and Monaco. Byanyima, a former Ugandan parliamentarian, has also led gender initiatives at the United Nations Development Programme and African Union Commission.

Byanyima sat down with Devex at the G-7 development and finance ministerial in Whistler, Canada, to discuss her role on the council and the recommendations it made to the bloc. She also discussed how her organization is recovering from a sexual abuse and exploitation scandal and how the industry must work together to prevent such incidents in the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The G-7 development and finance ministers met jointly for the first time. Why is it important to have these two portfolios at the table together?

It’s very important because as the seven richest countries in the world their decisions have a huge impact on millions of people around the world in developing countries. They have the largest economies and these economies have opportunity which could lift millions out of poverty.

But what we are seeing is that actually, the global economy that we have, and that is very much shaped by those rich countries, is rigged against poor people in developing countries especially.

Of those, the vast majority are poor women. The global economy is rigged in favor of few at the top because it rewards those with wealth and not those who work hard. We want them to reconfigure their economies, to change the business model. In that unjust economic model women are at the bottom of the heap.

What recommendations is the Women’s Advisory Council making to the G-7?

We’ve made recommendations asking the ministers of finance to use a gender approach in planning their policies and allocating their budgets. This is about correcting sex disaggregated data, using it to understand and visualize the differences between men and women in the economy, and planning so that the economy gives equal opportunity and equal outcomes for men and women. We recommended using a gender budgeting approach in planning their budgets, and to repeal all laws that discriminate against women in the economy.

We’ve also talked about informal laws or social norms that discriminate. These are passed on from generation to generation. They shape women’s lives, especially poor women. They place a higher burden of unpaid care work on women and girls. It prevents girls from going to school. It prevents women from going out to earn paid work. The governments can lift some of that burden by providing quality child care, efficient public transportation. These policies can be government led and the private sector can follow.

Why is it important to be putting women and girls in the center at this level?

Canada has a feminist international development policy. That’s strong leadership by Canada. We have recommended to the other G-7 leaders to consider, too, having a feminist international policy. We mean a policy where the international development assistance is focusing on tackling the structural barriers that women face: The practices that prevent women from owning productive assets such as land and housing, to tackle violence against women because it undermines women’s ability to work and gain from the economy.

“We have recommended to the other G-7 leaders to consider, too, having a feminist international policy.”

— Winnie Byanyima, executive director at Oxfam International

It was so important that the ministers of finance are also here to discuss the role that those rich countries have in eradicating poverty globally. Countries that are still struggling depend on aid resources from richer countries, among other things. It’s important that rich countries invest this aid in ways that truly tackle poverty. We’ve been here also to encourage them to meet their commitment of [spending] 0.7 percent gross national income for aid. Canada hasn’t reached that. It’s about 0.26 percent. And even though it has a feminist international development policy, it does not yet allocate the proportion of its budget that it committed to.

What must the development industry be doing to make sure there are no more sexual abuse and exploitation scandals?

This has been a #MeToo moment for our sector. [Oxfam] systems have allowed some to abuse women. And when we found them, we didn’t do enough to punish it and we didn’t report it enough — we are learning from those mistakes. We are working hard to prevent it happening again, and that means aligning the culture of the organization with the values we profess. A lot of work is going into awareness raising around our code of conduct and creating an open culture where people can call out bad behavior when it happens.

“We need to have more women country directors, we need to have more women leading humanitarian responses.”

We found we had underinvested in the systems for detecting it, and investigating and punishing it. We are strengthening those systems. We have tripled the resources that we have been spending and doubled the size of the team that works in this response area. Most importantly, we have to work to increase the numbers of women in senior positions in our organizations to lead teams. We need to have more women country directors, we need to have more women leading humanitarian responses.

We have to make sure that when we investigate and find a perpetrator, that person must not move on to another organization to reoffend. We are working with others to create a humanitarian passport. That’s difficult because of data privacy, because of different jurisdictions across different countries. We are still trying to find a way around those challenges.

How are you reassuring employees this won’t happen again?

We’re seeing more reporting of incidents and that’s positive because it means that people now trust the system more and are willing to report abuse, whether in the past or current. Of course, we’re seeing a lot of pain in our organization. Our staff and our partners were shocked at the revelations. As a leader, I had to engage a lot in helping staff to understand and to express themselves, and share their pain and their disappointment at what happened. It’s been a humbling moment for our organization. We let those who trust us down.  

How did Oxfam donors react?

Donors don’t want to give us money to go to solve problems, save lives, so we revictimize the people we set out to help. So, a number of donors suspended their grants to us and asked us to prove to them that we are getting better, strengthening our systems, and that we can assure them that there will be safety of women on whose behalf we work. We have been very transparent about explaining the steps we’re taking.

We’ve seen a number of them reopening their grants to us. That is very positive. There are also others who didn’t suspend grants but who said “Oxfam, show us that you can change this situation and ensure that women are safe within the organization and those who come in contact with the organization.”

But it means that we have had to reprioritize our budget. Some work has had to be suspended and some staff let go. That’s very painful for us.

Do you believe the organization will recover?

Absolutely. I have no doubt about that. I’ve put all my energy in this, because I came from the women’s rights movement to Oxfam, it’s something I’ve done all my life. If there’s anything I leave [as my legacy] for Oxfam, it is to make it stronger on how it works on women’s rights. I already see a lot of change, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.