Graca Machel: Much more than a first lady

Graca Machel, fondly called Mama Machel by many who adore her, is a woman with weighty qualifications, including a law degree—combined with an impressive slate of global achievements in women’s rights and humanitarian issues.

According to South African History Online (Saho), Graça Simbine Machel was born on 17 October 1945, in Gaza, Mozambique, the last in a family of six children.

Her father, a Methodist minister who died three weeks before she was born, left explicit instructions that her older siblings were to see her through high school.

After that, a church-based scholarship made it possible for her to attend Lisbon University (Portugal) in 1968, to major in languages.

Under surveillance from the Portuguese secret police, she was forced to abandon her education and flee to Switzerland to escape the prison sentence that was almost certainly waiting for her due to her political activities as a student.

In 1973, while she was in Europe she joined the Marxist-based Mozambican Liberation Front (Frelimo), an organised resistance movement that was steadily gaining ground in the struggle against colonialism from the Portuguese.

Kaliati exchanges pleasantries with Machel (L) during her visit to Malawi

Many people know her as the former first lady of Mozambique-owing to her marriage to former Mozambican president, the late Samora Machel. She was also married to South Africa’s first black president, the late Nelson Mandela.

But, Graca Machel is more than just a first lady or a woman who was married to two of Africa’s powerful men, she is a freedom fighter with a mission to liberate and educate her people.

She established the Graca Machel Scholarship; she is also an activist and a leading international advocate for the rights of women and children. In addition, she is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ambassador. All these are just a few details that can be added to the long list of what she does.

“I’m not Samora’s wife,” she has been known to snap. “I’m me.” In public, she is beloved for her ready smiles and good sense of humour, mixed with a steely determination. Mama Machel is a woman who is shy of publicity but she does not shy away from asking awkward questions that often question the status quo.

It is this steely determination that has seen her become one of the most powerful women in Africa and globally.

Fighting for women and children’s rights comes naturally to her as a mother, who just like the many mothers face various challenges in their quest to offer a better life for their children.

And like most women in African societies, she has had to fight male chauvinism on her way up and fight for equal rights for both women and men.

In most of her conversations, Machel never stops to make mention of the fact that women just like their male counterparts, are capable of achieving more, socially, economically and even politically if they are empowered and have a voice on issues that affect them.

Through her Graca Machel Trust, established in 2010 as a Pan-African advocacy organisation focused on child health and nutrition, education, women’s economic and financial empowerment, leadership and good governance, she has reached out and brought more women together to discuss and share experiences on matters that affect them.

Over the last five years the trust has worked to “Multiply the Faces and Amplify the Voices” of African women and children. Through collaboration with partners at all levels, the Graca Machel Trust has helped promote and strengthen women and children’s networks to drive social and economic change.

The trust acts as a catalyst, working across the continent to advocate for the protection of children’s rights and dignity, and amplify women’s movements by harnessing and promoting their contributions to the economic, social and political development of Africa.

Network of African Business Women (Nabw) and the Women in Media network (Wimn) are just some of the trust’s women’s networks present in Malawi.

Nabw provides women with opportunities to freely and effectively participate in the economic development of their countries through the establishment of sustainable business ventures. Wimn on the other hand, is the latest Pan-African network established by the trust. It is a network of African women journalists who individually and collectively use their influence and voice to help shape and disseminate empowering storylines about Africa’s women and children.

For the past week, the trust brought together Africa’s powerful women leaders in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania under the banner, Women Advancing Africa Forum (WAA) with the aim to acknowledge and celebrate the critical role women play in shaping Africa’s future.

More than 200 African women leaders and partners attended the forum.

Machel believes in the spirit of Ubunthu, the “I am because you are”.

She believes she is who she is because they were other women who helped her and hence it is only fair that she too helps fellow women.

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