Graça Machel: Champion of Women’s and Children’s Right

By Duchess Magazine

“There is vast potential to be tapped in the dreams, aspirations, abilities and determination of girls and young women, so that they can become the driving force of their own transformation.”


Graça Machel of Mozambique holds the unique distinction of being the only woman to have been married to the presidents of two different countries. She married Mozambican revolutionary leader Samora Machel in 1975 – the year Mozambique became free of Portuguese colonial rule, and her husband became president. She was named the new government’s minister of education and culture. Her husband died in a mysterious plane crash in 1986. Twelve years later, she married South Africa’s president, Nelson Mandela. But being a first lady is not her only claim to fame.

Beyond her role as a political figure, she is renowned for her contributions as an educator and humanitarian, actively advocating for the welfare of others.

Born Graça Simbine on October 17, 1945, in Mozambique’s Gaza province, she began her education at a Methodist mission school before pursuing further studies at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. Upon returning to Mozambique in 1973, Machel joined Frelimo, a pro-liberation group, and later moved to Tanzania to teach at a Frelimo school. In 1975, she married Samora Machel, the first president of independent Mozambique, and served as the country’s minister of education and culture until the late 1980s, continuing even after his death in 1986. In 1998, she married Nelson Mandela, the president of South Africa at the time.

Machel’s involvement with the United Nations began in the 1980s, and in 1996, she authored a report for the UN on the impact of war and violence on children. She also established the Foundation for Community Development in Mozambique in 1994.

Throughout her career, Machel has received numerous international awards and honors for her humanitarian work, including the Nansen Medal from the UN in 1995 and an honorary dame commander title in the Order of the British Empire from the United Kingdom in 2007.

In 2007, Machel became a member of The Elders, an international group of respected leaders supporting human rights worldwide. She has been actively involved in various regional and international development organizations, advocating for social transformation, global health, child welfare, and women’s rights.

Machel has founded three non-governmental organizations focused on community development, child welfare, and women’s empowerment. She currently serves as chancellor of the University of Cape Town, chancellor of the African Leadership University, and president of SOAS, University of London.

Her work has earned her numerous accolades, including the WHO Gold Medal in 2018 for her contributions to the health and well-being of women, children, and adolescents. Machel continues to be a driving force for positive change, dedicating her life to improving the lives of women and children and advocating for a more just and equitable world.

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