Graca Machel’s Quick Biography
Africa is not the best place for women to be born. The patriarchal system they adopt in running their society hardly recognizes the rights of women, both young and old. Genital mutilation, child marriages, and child armies—you will find them all in that continent. If you’re a woman living in Africa, you have every reason to desert the land and look for a better life elsewhere. If you’re a mother, you won’t allow your child to grow up exposed to so much violence and oppression. But if you’re Graca, that’s another story.
Graca was born and raised in Mozambique at a time when political unrest and the battle for power were suffocating. She saw how badly treated women were and she felt responsible to do something for her people.
Illiteracy then was not even considered a problem but was regarded as the norm. Young girls in their pre–teens were being given away in marriage to pay off debts, win favors, or fulfill a promise. Their budding life gets extinguished and threatened as they embark on adulthood way before their time.
If you’re Graca who was given the opportunity to study in Portugal, are you going to run away or stay and fight for what you think is right?
Graca’s choice proved two things about her. First is that she was no ordinary woman; and second, she’s got a spirit tougher than most men. To elude being arrested for taking part in plotting a rebellion, Graca was forced to stop pursuing a college degree and go full-time in activism.
She went back to Mozambique where she became a legitimate and active member of the Mozambican Liberation Front or FRELIMO. Her life has just begun. She met the man who respected her ideals and adored her peculiarity. Samora Machel’s idealism and love for Mozambique effortlessly won Graca over. As they start a family, they also began to build their country—the Republic of Mozambique.
Graca Machel became the first First Lady when Samora was elected President after they acquired freedom. Aside from taking over the responsibility of raising his husband’s five kids from his previous marriage, Graca became a mother to the neglected Mozambican children.
She was appointed Minister of Education because of her background in teaching at Bagamoyo and her sincere concern for children. Before she assumed office, more than half of the children of Mozambique did not care about going to school. Their parents were not very encouraging either. They could not give what they did not have, and education was among the things denied to them by their forefathers.
It’s not just about financial incapability. The problem of education in Mozambique went deeper than monetary issues. Parents did not encourage schooling because they did not see the need for it. Girls, in particular, had no reason to go to school because they were treated as commodities. Enabling them to learn how to read and write was a waste of time since they will be spending their whole life just attending to their children and looking after their husband anyway. Education was simply not a necessity.
Such was Graca’s problem. She had to find a way to make parents appreciate the need for education. It would have been an impossible undertaking if it’s not Graca who was at the helm of the project. She started reforming the educational system, training teachers, enlightening parents, and encouraging children. After more than 10 years, they began seeing astounding results. Education became a priority in most homes. Kids study not because they were forced, but because they wanted to. Parents, on the other hand, enforced the importance of education in their homes.
For the first time, Mozambique finally felt its liberation. Graca then began to work for the United Nations as a Special Representative to study the impact of armed conflict on children. The staggering facts she uncovered became UN’s blueprint in tailoring policies and strategies to keep children from participating in the ugly war.
But all that were just the beginning for Graca Machel. She doesn’t find any joy in sitting idly and waiting for a miracle to happen. If she wants a miracle, she works on it. Yes, she’s famous for being the only woman who became First Lady of two different countries. But there’s more to her than being Samora Machel and Nelson Mandela’s spouse. As the cliché goes, she’s a force to be reckoned with. How did this woman achieve so much while playing a crucial role in two different countries’ top governments?
There is no short explanation to that. The making of a Graca Machel did not happen overnight. She became the woman she is now because of the environment she lived in and painful realities she witnessed. Her strength is an amalgam of the lessons she learned in her many years in social work. The knowledge she obtained from her experiences make up her ideologies not only as a woman, but a citizen with equal rights as her male counterparts.
Graca’s Scholarship Takes Her to Portugal
Graca Simbine was the last of the six children of a couple from Gaza Province, Mozambique. She was born on 17 October 1945 in a rural place named Incadine. Her father was a Methodist Minister who thought like no other male Africans did. She was lucky to be born in a family where education was given primal consideration. Unfortunately, she did not meet the man who had high hopes for his youngest. Her father died of an illness months before she was born. However, he did not die without making Graca’s mother promise that all of their children, including the one in her womb, would be given an education.
Fulfilling her promise to her husband, Graca’s mother enrolled her in a Methodist school when she was only about six years old. Since 1500, Mozambique has been under the rule of Portugal. Graca left for Lisbon University in Portugal where a church–based scholarship grant awaited her in 1961. She majored in Romance Languages. (According to Wikipedia, Romance Languages “are all the related languages derived from Vulgar Latin and forming a subgroup of the Italic languages within the Indo–European language family.”)
Living abroad broadened Graca’s perspective not only about her cultural heritage, but also that of others. In Lisbon, she met with a number of different people who, like her, came from countries subjugated by Portugal. That’s when she began entertaining the thought of fighting for their freedom.
She had classmates from Angola and Guinea-Bisseau whom she talked to everyday about political issues. Back then, it was considered a heresy and treason to discuss anything about establishing their own government. Portugal was wary of talks that may spark revolution and rob them of their colonies.
In order to avoid getting caught, Graca and her fellow activist students would organize parties. Then they would turn up the volume of their stereo and pretend they were dancing when they were actually engaging in prohibited conversations.
Teaching Mozambican Children
It did not take long before they were found out and a manhunt ensued. Graca fled to Switzerland and stayed there until the issue cooled down. In 1973, a year after she fled Portugal, she heard about an 11–year–old Marxist underground movement, the Mozambican Liberation Front or FRELIMO. Because of the way FRELIMO was being efficiently run, it became one of the most “organized” movements.
In Tanzania, Graca underwent a rigid military training. She was taught how to fire a rifle and how to load them with bullets, among other things. After her training, she was sent to Mozambique and she stayed at Cabo Delgaso Province. FRELIMO Commander, Samora Machel, happened to be there. The two met and that’s when their romance started to flourish.
In order to stay faithful to their educational missions, FRELIMO tasked Graca to direct their school in Bagamoyo, Tanzania.
Graca Marries Samora Machel
Finally, FRELIMO’s hard work bore fruit and Portugal granted Mozambique their freedom. Being the leader of the organization, Samora Machel was elected president of the Republic of Mozambique on 25 June 1975. In December of the same year, Graca and Samora tied the knot in a simple wedding in Tanzania. Zambia and Tanzania Presidents were present in their special moment; the two leaders became their Best Men.
That commenced Graca’s even busier schedule. She had to manage Samora’s household, while acting his most trusted political ally. Samora had five children from his previous marriage, who Graca became a mother to. Josina, Samora’s wife, died of leukemia complications in 1971 leaving all her five children motherless until Graca joined the family.
The Mozambican people know the key role that Graca played in their President’s life. She was appointed Minister of Education shortly after her husband became the most important man in Mozambique. She accepted the task with all her heart in spite of having an already hectic schedule at home. Not that being Minister of Education was easy. It took a lot of creativity and political will from her part to make education appealing to the disillusioned Mozambicans.
Only 40 percent of their youth’s population was attending school. Parents were not supportive because they did not see the need, especially for girls, to study. It broke Graca’s heart and she knew she had to change their minds in order to give them a better future.
Graca Changes Children’s Attitude Towards Education
They did a total makeover on their educational system. Teachers were given proper training. Books were also updated. To get the kids to go to school, Graca knew she needed their parents’ help. And so she began a study brigade for adults. They were taught how to read and write. When parents realized the value of education, they made it a must in their respective home.
In 1976, Samora and Graca faced the biggest challenge of their young government. A leftist group from South Africa named Resistencia Nacional Mocambicana or RENAMO emerged with the intention of toppling the existing republic.
On 19 October 1986, Graca received the worst news of her life. The aircraft carrying Samora and some 36 passengers suspiciously went off-course and crashed on the hillside of South African border.
One of the people who comforted her during that dark moment was Nelson Mandela.
She left her post in the Ministry of Education as she concentrated on raising their two children, Jozina and Malnga, along with his other five kids. In 1990, encouraged by the positive changes brought about by the new governance, Graca founded the Foundation for Community Development with the aim of rebuilding clinics, schools, and parks.
The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children Study
When Christian Science Monitor released the statistics of children who perished in the war and became orphans, it alarmed the United Nations. Graca was then serving as the Chairman of both the National Organization of Children and the UNESCO commission. She was perfect for the study the UN was planning to conduct—The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children.
For two years, Graca went from one war–torn country to the next, observing the lives of children caught in the middle of fighting forces. She was appalled and overwhelmed by what she uncovered. Below is a note from Graca herself published in the UNICEF website, explaining how the study changed her life forever:
“I am privileged to have been given the opportunity to report on a topic that I believe is of fundamental importance to humanity. In the past decade, 2 million children have been killed in armed conflict. Three times as many have been seriously injured or permanently disabled. Millions of others have been forced to witness or even take part in horrifying acts of violence. It is impossible to give accurate statistics on this carnage. The conservative estimates available hide the numbers of children whose murders are concealed and remain unrecorded, who are erased from the memory of humankind when whole families and communities are wiped out. Yet it is clear that increasingly, children are targets, not incidental casualties, of armed conflict.
I come from a culture where traditionally, children are seen as both our present and our future, so I have always believed it is our responsibility as adults to give children futures worth having. In the two years spent on this report, I have been shocked and angered to see how shamefully we have failed in this responsibility.
In some countries, conflicts have raged for so long that children have grown into adults without ever knowing peace. I have spoken to a child who was raped by soldiers when she was just nine years old. I have witnessed the anguish of a mother who saw her children blown to pieces by land-mines in their fields, just when she believed they had made it home safely after the war. I have listened to children forced to watch while their families were brutally slaughtered. I have heard the bitter remorse of 15-year-old ex-soldiers mourning their lost childhood and innocence, and I have been chilled listening to children who have been so manipulated by adults and so corrupted by their experiences of conflict that they could not recognize the evil of which they had been a part. These are the stories behind the figures given in this report — figures of such magnitude that they often hide the impact of these horrors on each child, each family, each community.
This report has given me the opportunity to learn about more than just the brutality of armed conflict, however. In Lebanon, I visited the site of an 'education for peace' project set up by children, with support from UNICEF. Where only months before there had been division, bitterness and hatred between communities, I found a group of teenagers interacting positively, exchanging experiences. These teenagers have managed to build bridges of communication where so many adults had failed. Hundreds of youth volunteers, many of them former militia members, have been mobilized as militants for peace. Those children understand that preventing the conflicts of tomorrow means changing the mind-set of youth today.
I have learned that despite being targets in contemporary armed conflicts, despite the brutality shown towards them and the failure of adults to nurture and protect them, children are both our reason to eliminate the worst aspects of armed conflict and our best hope of succeeding in that charge. In a disparate world, children are a unifying force capable of bringing us all together in support of a common ethic.
This was demonstrated repeatedly in the interactive, consultative process of research and mobilization that led to this report, involving all elements of civil society, and in particular, women and children, communities, academic institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), UN agencies, governments and regional organizations.
In particular, six regional consultations were held: in Asia and the Pacific, Eastern and Southern Africa, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and West and Central Africa. Field visits were made to several areas affected by armed conflicts: Angola, Cambodia, Colombia, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Rwanda (and refugee camps in Tanzania and Zaire), Sierra Leone and former Yugoslavia. There I met with officials and with children and their families to ensure that the final report reflects the immediate concerns of the people most directly affected. More than 20 thematic research papers and workshops were specially commissioned as background materials. The report greatly benefited from the input of a group of eminent persons including Belisario Betancur (Colombia), Francis Deng (Sudan), Marian Wright Edelman (USA), Devaki Jain (India), Julius K. Nyerere (Tanzania), Lisbet Palme (Sweden), Wole Soyinka (Nigeria) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (South Africa). Additional guidance came from a group of technical advisers representing diverse professional, political, religious and cultural backgrounds, and I received key support from the UN Centre for Human Rights, UNICEF and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
As a result, this report is undoubtedly a collaborative effort and only one part of a larger global movement to protect the rights of children as stated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child . The report is complementary to the work of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, NGOs and UN agencies working in the areas of human rights, humanitarian assistance and development, whose concern has helped create space for political and social mobilization at local, national and international levels.
Above all else, this process has strengthened my conviction that we must do anything and everything to protect children, to give them priority and a better future. This report is a call to action and a call to embrace a new morality that puts children where they belong — at the heart of all agendas. Protecting children from the impact of armed conflict is everyone's responsibility — governments, international organizations and every element of civil society. Therefore my challenge to each of you reading this report is that you ask yourself what you can do to make a difference. And then take that action, no matter how large or how small. For our children have a right to peace.” (Source: UNICEF.org)
The report was worth the trouble. The UN used it as basis in creating appropriate measures to put a stop to this horrible practice. Graca became more driven in seeing change happen. She was awarded by the UN the Nansen Medal in 1995. In 1997, Graca became recipient of the InterAction's Humanitarian Award and the Global Citizen Award from the New England Circle.
The Graca and Nelson Mandela Wedding
The following year, Graca married South African president, Nelson Mandela, making her First Lady for the second time around—this time in South Africa. It was also the year when she won the North-South Prize, an annual award given by the North-South Centre of the Council of Europe to individuals who displayed profound concern for human rights thereby promoting North-South unity.
In 2007, she co-founded The Elders and was made honorary Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Graca won the respect and confidence not only of the Mozambican people she faithfully served, but also the admiration of men and women all around the world. She has proven her worth as a woman, a leader, a wife, and a mother.
Organisations and Campaigns Supported
- Mozambican Liberation Front
- Mineseeker Foundation
- The Elders
- Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa (AWEPA) Eminent Advisory Board
- School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
- National Organization of Children of Mozambique
- Commonwealth of Nations' Eminent Persons Group
- World Conference on Education for All
- Impact of Armed Conflict on Children
- Africa Progress Panel
- Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s Ibrahim Prize Committee
- University of Cape Town
- Foundation for Community Development
- Whatana Investments Lda
- Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital
- PME African Infrastructure Opportunities PLC
- Forum of African Women Educationalists
- The African Leadership Forum
- The International Crisis Group
- Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization Fund
- High Level Task Force on Innovative International Finance for Health Systems
- Girls not Brides
- 1974: Appointed Deputy Director of the Frelimo Secondary School at Bagamoyo
- 1975-1986: First Lady of Mozambique
- 1975: Appointed Minister for Education and Culture
- 1990: Served in the committee of the World Conference on Education for All
- 1990: Founded the Foundation for Community Development
- 1992: Received the Africa Prize
- 1992: Awarded the Laureate of Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger from the Hunger Project
- 1994: Asked to look into the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children
- 1995: Received the Nansen Medal from the United Nations
- 1996: UN published her report: The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children
- 1997: Received the InterAction's Humanitarian Award
- 1997: Received the Global Citizen Award of the New England Circle
- 1998-1999: First Lady of South Africa
- 1998: Won the North-South Prize
- 1998: One of the UNICEF delegates
- 2007: Made an honorary Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire
- 2007: Co-founded The Elders
- 2008: Received Doctora Honoris Causa from the University of Évora, Portugal
- 2008: Received Doctor of Philosophy Honoris Causa from the University of Stellenbosch
- CARE Awardee
- Received the Africare Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award