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Making History: Major Winnet Zharare becomes the first Zimbabwean peacekeeper to receive the United Nations Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award

Written by: Camilla Stamp & Maya Kelly  
Edited by: Urjasi Rudra

Major Winnet Zaharare was destined to be a champion for equality. 

Born into a family of five girls and two boys in Mhondoro, Zimbabwe, she was lucky enough to be raised with the expectation of the same opportunities in life as her siblings, regardless of their gender.

This motivated her to become a fierce advocate for others to enjoy the same right.

In 2006, she joined the Zimbabwe Defence Forces as a 2nd Lieutenant, determined to boost the participation of women in the predominantly male-dominated military sector.

The same aim inspired her to seize the opportunity to join UN Peacekeeping in 2020. 

Today, her efforts are recognized, as Major Zharare becomes the first Zimbabwean to receive the prestigious United Nations Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award for her outstanding efforts to integrate gender perspectives into peacekeeping activities.

In November 2020, Major Zharare was deployed to the Bentiu field office for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) as a Military Observer and Chief Military Information Officer. Seeing first-hand how women are often excluded from decision-making, she immediately launched a plan to help empower them. Major Zharare promoted mixed-gender patrols to build trust, improve protection efforts and boost community engagement. She successfully brought together women and men from local communities to farm and build dikes together to alleviate food shortages and prevent further displacement. She contributed to the increased production of gender-disaggregated data and advocated for gender parity within the mission. She made it a priority for to ensure that local civilian and military authorities, as well as community representatives, involved both men and women in meetings with the UN.

UN Peacekeeping spoke with Major Zharare, who shared her motivation for following a military career and advancing gender equality.

What motivated you to focus on gender equality issues?

“Growing up in a patriarchal society where men have always been given preference over women, to eventually see a shift with the turn of the millennium, when countries started focusing on gender mainstreaming, served as motivation for me to work on addressing gender issues. Also, my parents gave us (girls) equal opportunities as my brothers. I believe that equal opportunities should be given to both women and men in all aspects of life.”

As her career took off in 2006, Major Zharare deployed with the Zimbabwe Defence Forces as an Infantry Platoon Commander, while doubling as a matron in Mutare. She then worked as a Protocol Officer from 2015 to 2019, after which she was nominated for deployment with UNMISS. 

In November 2020, Major Zharare became an UNMISS peacekeeper, accepting the position of Military Observer in Bentiu, South Sudan, where her roles included Chief Information Officer, Training Officer, and Gender Focal Point.

What motivated you to join UN Peacekeeping?

“I initially joined the military because I saw it as a challenge. The military is dominated by men and most women are afraid of joining the military because of the [perceived] strenuous training. I joined the Zimbabwe Defence Forces and when I was nominated by my country to deploy to UNMISS, I eagerly accepted the opportunity to be part of UN Peacekeeping.”

The most challenging part of her job was leaving her family and children to deploy to South Sudan, she recalls. Throughout her 17-month service, Major Zharare was a strong advocate for gender parity and women’s participation within her own ranks, among local military counterparts, and in host communities.

Why is it important for peacekeeping to promote gender equality in the communities we serve? 

“In South Sudan, there are currently no equal opportunities between men and women. The right to education is observed for boys and men, and there are more men in leadership roles than women. Promoting gender equality promotes equal and full participation of both men and women. As women are the most affected by conflicts, by engaging them in peacekeeping [we can promote] gender equality, and open up opportunities to all.”

How can women working in peacekeeping contexts promote gender equality?

"Some cultures do not allow women to interact with men. Therefore, patrols should be equally balanced by including both men and women, as gender-balanced teams enable more female peacekeepers to talk to the women in the community [thus enabling local women’s participation in peacebuilding.] If local women and children see equal representation [of men and women] during patrols, this will show them that they too can participate equally.”

“Local women also trust and open up to other women. Therefore more women should be recruited in the military to be deployed for peacekeeping missions and encouraged to serve the maximum time allowed. Most people prefer women to conduct liaison and negotiations."

“Women should also be given leadership roles in UN missions.”

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres commended Major Zharare for receiving the Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award: “Major Zharare is a role model and a trailblazer,” he said. “Through her service, she has demonstrated the invaluable role that women play in building trust, advocating for change and forging peace. Her example shows how we will all gain with more women at the decision-making table and gender parity in peace operations.”

The United Nations Gender Advocate of the Year Award recognizes the dedication and effort of an individual peacekeeper in promoting the principles within the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. Learn about previous MGAY award winners here.