Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School; One of Time’s 100 Most Influential People
Graça Machel, Mozambique's first Minister of Education and a prominent human rights speaker, has been a tireless advocate for education and humanitarian efforts in Africa. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, and she has focused on areas such as women's empowerment, good governance, and reducing illiteracy. Machel's dedication to social and economic development in Africa has made her a leading figure in the field.
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Mozambique’s first Minister of Education, human rights speaker Graça Machel is one of the world’s leading socio-political activists. A stirring public speaker, Graça Machel addresses audiences around the world with a message of determination, advocacy, and hope.
As a student, Graça Machel opposed the Portuguese regime in Mozambique. Fleeing to Lisbon to continue her studies, Machel joined an international effort to secure independence for her homeland. There she met Samora Machel, president of FRELIMO, the leading Mozambican independence organization. The two married shortly after Mozambique secured its independence in 1975, and Samora Machel became the new country’s first president.
Machel joined FRELIMO’s Central Committee and also served as Mozambique’s first Minister of Education and Culture. In her ten years as Minister, Machel reduced the country’s illiteracy rate by 72% and more than doubled school enrolment. Her husband’s death in a 1986 plane crash ended Machel’s career in federal politics, but she continued her humanitarian work.
Political troubles continued to plague Mozambique, and girls in the country found their education particularly affected. As a civilian, Machel devoted herself to improving conditions for children, families and women in Mozambique and across Africa. Her efforts earned her the Hunger Project’s Laureate of Africa Prize and the 1995 Nansen Medal for humanitarian service. Her other acknowledgements include the Inter Press Service’s International Achievement Award and the Africare Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award.
During this time, Machel’s relationship with Nelson Mandela deepened. When the couple married in 1998, Machel achieved the distinction of becoming the first woman in history to become first lady of two different countries.
In 2010, Machel launched the Graça Machel Trust, a pan-African organization dedicated to education, women’s empowerment, and good governance.
Graça Machel joined the Mozambican Liberation Front in 1973 as a schoolteacher. When Mozambique gained its independence two years later, she became the country’s first Minister of Education and Culture – the only woman in the cabinet.
Between 1975 and 1989 she was responsible for overseeing an increase in primary school enrolment from 40 per cent of children to over 90 per cent of boys and 75 per cent of girls. As chairperson of the National Organisation of Children of Mozambique, she has also worked closely with families to promote literacy and rehabilitate children affected by the country’s long civil war.
For Mrs Machel, the struggle for the right to education and development continues. “It is the meaning of what my life has been since a youth – to try to fight for the dignity and the freedom of my own people.”
In 1994, the United Nations Secretary-General appointed Graça Machel as an independent expert to carry out an assessment of the impact of armed conflict on children. Her groundbreaking report recommended the rehabilitation and social integration of children affected by conflict – with emphasis on providing opportunities to access education and skills development for all. The Machel Report established a new and innovative agenda for the comprehensive protection of children caught up in war, changing the policy and practice of governments, UN agencies, and international and national civil society.
In 1995, Graça Machel was awarded the Nansen Medal in recognition of her contribution to the welfare of refugee children.
Graça Machel remains a fierce advocate for Africa’s successes and potential. As President of the Foundation for Community Development (FDC), a not-for-profit Mozambican organisation she founded in 1994, she promotes development by increasing community access to information and technology. The FDC makes grants to civil society organisations to strengthen communities, facilitate social and economic justice, and assist in the reconstruction and development of post-war Mozambique. Mrs Machel founded the Graça Machel Trust which advocates for the rights of women and children on the African continent, as well as good governance and democracy.
Mrs Machel has also served on the boards of numerous organisations working to prevent conflict and advance development, including the UN Foundation, the Forum of African Women Educationalists, the African Leadership Forum, and International Crisis Group. She was Chair of the Fund Board for the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) for almost 10 years as well as Eminent Person of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), and is currently the Chancellor of the University of Cape Town.
In recognition of her lifelong efforts to promote human rights, education and development, Graça Machel has received the Laureate of Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger (1992), the Inter Press Service’s International Achievement Award (1998), the North-South Prize of the Council of Europe (1998) and the Africare Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award (1999), among others.
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