WASHINGTON D.C. —
Before her appointment to the fashionable position of Assistant Secretary-General for Safety and Security at the United Nations, Dr. Fadzai Gwaradzimba was a regular person not many Zimbabweans knew about.
Her ordinary standing changed this month when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced her new portfolio, essentially upgrading her to an icon that many of her countrymen and Africans now envy, and are proud of.
For 25 years she steadily and quietly cultivated her roots at the UN, beginning her career with the United Nations Development Programme in Somalia in 1989.
Most recently she has held the positions of Deputy Assistant Administrator and Deputy Director in the Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy (BERA) for the UNDP in New York.
Gwaradzimba, 62, has also held top position in the UN in South and West Asia, The Gambia, Malawi, Kosovo and Barbados.
She’s ecstatic about her new position and ready for the new challenge that her boss has entrusted her with.
“I’m extremely thrilled and I feel very privileged and honored,” she told the VOA. “It’s been a long time since I joined the United Nations and I never expected that I would get to this level. I feel extremely honored.”
Gwaradzimba attended Usher boarding schools in Plumtree, south of Zimbabwe, before heading to the capital, Harare, to read for her first degree at the University of Zimbabwe where she attained a Bachelor of Political Science and Public Administration degree.
She returned to teach at the UZ a few years after completing her studies.
Now a holder of a PhD in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins University, a Master’s degree in Public Affairs and International Studies from the University of Oregon and a Diploma in Economics from the University of Colorado – all in the United States – she credits her late father, who taught her the importance of education, for all she has achieved.
“I owe a great deal of my success and the person who I am to my late father. The way he raised us, the girls, I never saw a difference from my brother,” says Gwaradzimba.
“His words to me were always ‘you’re smart, I’m not a rich man; I’m a poor man but I’m wealthy in terms of my brain and the legacy that I give you as your inheritance is your brain; you use it and go to school and succeed and there’s nothing that you cannot do.’”
It has not been an easy road to the top, but she’s also not a shirker.
“I never really saw myself as a girl with less than or needing to but when I entered the work field I realized Oh my goodness, gender relations are difficult, racism is difficult but because I had been raised with self-confidence, it was much easier for me to fight and that strength has been very important throughout.”
She emphasizes the importance of young girls getting an education, a passion she says she got from her father who was a primary school teacher.
“As a result I never dreamt ‘when I grow up I want to be a mum’. At first it was ‘when I grow up I want to be a poet or a writer’ then I said I wanted to travel the world and so those dreams were fundamental and being a mother, being married was incidental,” said Gwaradzimba, adding she’s blessed to have a supportive husband and daughter.
An undisputable trailblazer, Gwaradzimba says her career and record should inspire young women from all over the developing world that nothing is impossible with hard work and diligence.
In appointing her to the top post, Mr. Ban said her wealth of experience in strategic management and leadership, coupled with in-depth knowledge of international development, crisis prevention and recovery, evaluation design and practice and gender issues, would go a long way in helping her new office take care of the needs of UN staffers.
Gwaradzimba, who succeeds Ms. Mbaranga Gasarabwe of Rwanda, who’s now the UN’s Deputy Special Representative for Mali, said her new office deals with ensuring the safety all United Nations staff.
“That job is much harder and more challenging in conflict countries and there are a lot of those. So the job that I’m going into is to contribute to ensure the safety of the staff; ensuring that they have the humanitarian space, the development space to do the work that is needed,” she said.
“What I bring is really a very keen understanding of the work of the UN across the board. I have been with the UNDP for over 25 years; I have also worked in peacekeeping so my keen understanding and awareness of what happens on the ground when the United Nations is there I think will help me a lot to bring added value to the work of the UNDSS.”
Gwaradzimba, who moves into her new office next month, says she had a lot of support from other women getting to the top, including many giant African women who went before her and created opportunities, adding she’s ready to mentor young women who are willing to learn, work hard and achieve their dreams.