LONDON (AP) — Winifred “Winnie” Byanyima, a former Ugandan politician and the current head of the humanitarian group Oxfam International, was appointed the new executive director of the U.N. AIDS agency on Wednesday.
The previous UNAIDS chief, Michel Sidibe, left the post early in May after allegations that he improperly handled sexual assault claims against one of his deputies.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric announced Byanyima’s appointment by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, saying she “brings a wealth of experience and commitment in harnessing the power of government, multilateral agencies, the private sector and civil society to end the HIV and AIDS crisis for communities around the world.”
In an email to Oxfam staff, Byanyima said she had “very personal” reasons for accepting the UNAIDS job, noting that she lost her brother Bernard to AIDS “as well as many comrades, friends and relatives” and that she is “guardian to children who are HIV/AIDS orphans.”
Ending AIDS, she wrote, “is an extremely important social justice issue, particularly so in Africa where the epidemic is most experienced.”
In a statement issued by UNAIDS after her appointment was announced, Byanyima said: “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.”
Byanyima, who was a Ugandan legislator for 11 years and has worked on women’s and development issues for international organizations, has engineering degrees from the Cranfield Institute of Technology and the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. Her husband, Kizza Besigye, is an opposition politician and four-time presidential candidate in Uganda.
Last year, the UNAIDS agency was rocked by claims of sexual assault and harassment. An independent report concluded there was a “toxic” atmosphere at the agency that was reportedly rife with bullying and professional misconduct.
The allegations of sexual assault and managerial mismanagement prompted Sweden to announce it would suspend its funding to the agency. A senior director accused of sexual assault left early and Sidibe announced that he was stepping down before his term ended.
Confidential documents obtained by the Associated Press earlier this year showed the agency was continuing to grapple with previously unreported allegations of financial and sexual misconduct involving a whistleblower who went public last March with claims that one of the organization’s top officials assaulted her in a Bangkok hotel elevator.
The turmoil has been a damaging distraction for an agency at the center of multibillion-dollar, taxpayer-funded U.N. efforts to end the global AIDS epidemic by 2030. The virus affects more than 37 million people worldwide and kills more than 900,000 people every year.
“I believe (Byanyima’s) personal experience with HIV will serve her well as she now takes on the responsibility of serving not just as the organizational head of UNAIDS, but the political head,” said Dr. Jose M. Zuniga, president and CEO of the International Association of Providers of AIDS Care, a UNAIDS technical partner.
He said Byanyima’s appointment should allow UNAIDS to reset the agency’s future priorities.
“She has an opportunity to close the sad chapter in UNAIDS history and open a new one,” Zuniga said. “She will need to prioritize the gathering and review of evidence, to make determinations from her rich experience as a leader, what to do to right the ship and ensure it’s heading in the right direction.”
He said that the agency has made significant advances in rolling out HIV testing and treatment under its previous directors, but that progress has been uneven across different patient groups.
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.