Graca Machel is a lady of firsts: She is the first and only woman in history to have been First Lady of two different countries; she served as the First Lady of Mozambique from 1975 to 1986 and the First Lady of South Africa from 1998 to 1999. She has changed government policies with a ground breaking report on the effect of armed conflict on children which she delivered for the United Nations in 1996.
The youngest of six children from a poor family in Mozambique, Graca was born 17 October 1945 in rural Incadine, Gaza Province, Portuguese East Africa after the death of her father. She attended Methodist Mission Schools before gaining a scholarship to the University of Lisbon in Portugal, where she studied German; Graca is also fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and English, as well as her native Tsonga.
She returned to Portuguese East Africa in 1973, joined the Mozambican Liberation Front and became a schoolteacher. Following Mozambique’s independence in 1975, Graca was appointed Minister for Education and Culture, the only woman in the cabinet; she also married Samora Machel the first President of Mozambique in the same year. He died in a plane crash over South Africa in 1986. Graca has not ceased to contribute to the rebuilding and developing of post-war Mozambique.
Graça Machel went on to become a celebrated advocate for women’s and children’s rights as well as a social and political activist across state and continental boundaries. She is President of the Foundation for Community Development (FDC), a not-for-profit Mozambican organisation she founded in 1994. The FDC makes grants to civil society organisations to strengthen communities, facilitate social and economic justice, and assists in the reconstruction and development of Mozambique. She also runs a scholarship programme for underprivileged girls in Southern Africa. In 1995, Graca received the Nansen Medal from the United Nations in recognition of her longstanding humanitarian work, particularly on behalf of refugee children.
Apart from being the recipient of a clutch of humanitarian awards, Graca has served and continues to serve on the board of international organisations, including the UN Foundation, the African Leadership Forum, the Nelson Mandela’s Elder’s Forum-a group of former world leaders- , the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s Ibrahim Prize Committee, and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation.
Graca’s honorary doctorates have come from as far as the University of Évora, Portugal, and the University of Stellenbosch. In 2007, she was made an honorary Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire at the request of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Graca who married freedom fighter extraordinaire Nelson Mandela in 1998, is no shrinking violet, no sir. She is an activist for justice, advocate for women and children, and de facto champion for the underprivileged.
An excerpt from her UN submission all those years ago, and which I still find relevant goes thus: “…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.” [http://www.unicef.org/graca/]
*Just yesterday, the terrorist sect in Nigeria attacked a school and killed some students and teachers…don’t children have a right to peace?