Winnie Byanyima describes herself as an “angry girl” when she fled her home country of Uganda as a university student.
A daughter of two schoolteachers, Byanyima loved academics. She was studying among childhood friends when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin became a direct threat.
“Our university professors were being killed and running away,” Byanyima told CNBC in an episode of Life Hacks Live. “There was a clamp down on students.”
Byanyima found refuge in the United Kingdom, where she said she was welcomed into friends’ homes. She received a refugee scholarship at the University of Manchester and got involved with human rights and political organizations on campus. Byanyima became the first female Ugandan to graduate with a degree in aeronautical engineering.
“I channeled my anger in activism, and I became a very serious human rights activist, political activist, as a result of my fleeing my country,” she said.
Byanyima is now the executive director of Oxfam International, a foundation focused on reducing poverty around the world. She said her experience as a refugee continues to shape her fight for human rights and gender and wealth equality.
“I think being a refugee makes you aware of the political circumstances that have made you vulnerable,” she said. “So you can either shun politics or you can say I’m going to get in there and fight. And, for me, it was, I had to fight.”
Byanyima took her fight to the front lines in Uganda, joining the National Resistance Army, a rebel group that waged guerrilla war against the Ugandan government. She eventually served three terms in the Ugandan parliament, leading the country’s first parliamentary women’s caucus.
The refugee-turned-activist said her experiences growing up in Uganda consistently inspire her today. She pointed to a memory of her childhood classmates who could not afford to wear shoes on the walk to school.
“Those girls I went to school with almost 50 years ago, most of them didn’t go past primary school,” she said. “I went to secondary school and university and here I am a global leader. I’m haunted by the thought that these kids, some of them brighter than myself, never made it.”
Byanyima said Oxfam International is working to alleviate extreme poverty and distribute global wealth. The organization published a study in January showing eight billionaires control as much money as the poorest half of the world’s population.
“We live in a world where there is really extreme levels of inequality that are trapping millions in poverty and that are wrecking our societies,” she said.
“We are determined to make it central to the global policy agenda and push governments and business to act.”
Life Hacks Live is a series produced by CNBC International for Facebook, where tomorrow’s leaders get to ask some of the world’s biggest influencers for advice. You can watch the full episode here.
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