Graça Machel

This Teaching Tolerance article profiles the activism of Graça Machel, who fought tirelessly for the rights of children from war-torn parts of the world.
Learning for Justice Staff
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“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. … I have been shocked and angered to see how shamefully we have failed in this responsibility.” These remarks come from Graça Machel, a woman who has witnessed firsthand the devastation that constant conflict has wrought on Africa’s childrenThey reveal her determination to protect the rights of young victims of war all over the world.

Graça Sabine Machel was born into a Methodist family in the southern part of Mozambique in 1945. Excelling at school, she won a place at Lisbon University in Portugal, an honor few women had achieved. At that time, Mozambique was still a colony of Portugal. Those studying abroad formed an underground liberation movement called FRELIMO, to fight for Mozambique’s independence. Graça joined it and went to Tanzania to receive military training in FRELIMO-controlled guerrilla camps.

The overthrow of the fascist government in Portugal paved the way for Mozambique’s independence in 1975 and FRELIMO became an interim government. Graça, at only 29 years of age, became FRELIMO’s state secretary of education in Mozambique’s first post-independence government.

In 1975 Graça married Samora Machel, a hero of Mozambique’s liberation struggle and the nation’s first president. Graça already was an important government figure and the only woman in FRELIMO’s cabinet.

The major focus of Graça’s work until 1989 was education. FRELIMO’s socialist goals included achieving universal education for all. Portugal had left a colonial legacy of illiteracy and Graça’s task was monumental. Teachers from the city were sent into the countryside in great numbers, teaching people to read and write. In three years the government enrolled 700,000 children in primary school. In the decade 1975–85, the number of students enrolled in primary and secondary schools rose from about 40% to over 90% for males and 75% for females.

This success was not to last. In their war of destabilization, which began in 1977, the anti-FRELIMO army called RENAMO (see Time Line), targeted schools and health clinics. Over 1,800 schools (45% of the primary school network), and 490 health centers were destroyed. Disillusioned, Graça quit as state secretary of education in 1986, but stayed in FRELIMO and served as a member of Parliament.

In October 1986 Samora Machel’s presidential jet mysteriously crashed just inside the South African border. Many, including Graça, believe he was killed by South African agents because of Samora’s policy of giving members of the outlawed South African movement ANC (African National Congress) sanctuary on Mozambique soil. At her husband’s death Graça said, “They think that by cutting down the tallest trees they can destroy the forest.” She intensified her commitment to her country’s development and expanded her efforts on behalf of children everywhere.

With the war’s end in 1992 Graça worked tirelessly to rehabilitate the over 1.5 million refugees who returned to Mozambique. She helped to develop ways to empower Mozambican women and undo the damage the war had inflicted on children. Becoming chairperson of the National Organization of Children of Mozambique, Graça said that she wanted to understand why “we have societies which deliberately target children—kill them, torture them, even make them become part of the destructive process—as happened in Rwanda and Mozambique.” She began to work with many U.N. organizations including UNICEF, for which she became Goodwill Ambassador. She established her own Foundation for Communal Work.

Graça Machel recognizes that today’s wars are being fought not between states but within them. The proportion of war victims who are civilians has leapt in recent decades from 5% to over 90%; at least half of these are children. She has seen children torn from their homes and turned into orphans and refugees, children who have been physically harmed because of land mines, malnutrition and brutal sexual assaults. She speaks of the emotional needs of those who silently suffer the effects of war for years afterwards, and of the thousands of young people cynically exploited as combatants. Impoverished children are recruited, tempted by the food and warmth the army may offer, while others are kidnapped from homes and orphanages.

Concerned with rapid social change and the breakdown of the family, Graça also has asked Africans to “decolonize’” their minds and instill in their young people the pride of being African. “We Africans may be impoverished, but we are not poor. … We can learn things from others, but we also have a lot to offer the world.

In 1994 Graça Machel’s reputation as a champion of children led to her appointment as expert in charge of an unprecedented U.N. study which resulted in the 1996 report, The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. Its aim is to find ways to better protect the “millions of children caught up in conflicts in which they are not merely bystanders, but targets.” Stating that in some countries conflicts have raged for so long that children have grown into adults without ever knowing peace, it challenges the world to “recapture our instinct to nourish and protect children. Let us transform our moral outrage into concrete action. … Peace is every child’s right.”

In 1997 Graça Machel was successful in encouraging African governments to sign an international treaty banning the use of land mines. Since Africa is the most heavily mined continent in the world, she urged everyone to educate children about these hidden killers lying under the soil. Girls in particular must be warned, because they are usually the ones who fetch water and firewood.

Throughout her life, Graça Machel shunned publicity, doing her work quietly but with passion. This has changed with her marriage to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela in 1998. She continued her dogged commitment to the most vulnerable people in war-torn nations. She called on the world “to do anything and everything to protect children, to give them priority and a better future. It 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.


Time Line: Mozambique

1950 Mozambicans form independence movements seeking self-rule from Portugal.

1962 FRELIMO (Frente de Liberta Vào de Mozambique) is formed and Samora Machel nominated as its president. A war of decolonization from Portugal begins.

1975 Mozambique becomes independent under the Lusaka Accord, which allows for rapid transfer of power to FRELIMO. The new government establishes a socialist development model, nationalizing social services and intervening in banks, railways and ports. They take over big Portuguese plantations to give land to peasants; they build schools and health clinics. Most of the Portuguese leave, taking their skills with them.

1977 South Africa starts a campaign of destabilization against the governments of Angola and Mozambique by sabotaging their economic infrastructures and rural economies. South Africa and Rhodesia help organize and equip an anti-FRELIMO army called the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO). During the following devastating 15-year war, Mozambique spirals into hunger and destruction. More than 1,000,000 people are killed and over 3,000,000 escape as refugees. Over 250,000 children are orphaned. The majority of the nation’s schools and health clinics are destroyed. RENAMO forces carry out a terror campaign against civilians. They kidnap young boys and girls, forcing them to join RENAMO forces. Girls are used as concubines for the soldiers.

1986 October 19 President Samora Machel is killed in a plane crash just inside South African territory along with more than 30 of Mozambique’s senior government officials. Survivors feel that the plane was shot down.

1990 A new constitution establishes a multiparty system.

1992 Civil war ends, leaving a legacy of poverty: It cost the country over $8 billion, more than the Mozambique debt. The country is riddled with land mines. At least 40 people are killed by the mines in Mozambique every month.

1994 Both RENAMO and FRELIMO parties participate in Mozambique’s first multiparty election. FRELIMO wins.

1996 Publication of U.N. report The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children revealing the full extent of children’s involvement in the 30 or so armed conflicts raging around the world.

Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    In speaking about the effects of civil wars and wars of independence on Africa, Graça Machel has said, “We have brought up a generation of youngsters who believe that to achieve something you have to use violence. Our children are becoming accustomed to, and are actively integrated into, this culture of violence.” Describe what a “culture of violence” is.
    A culture of violence is one in which violence is pervasive and far-reaching. It is accepted as the norm, and there are spoken or unspoken practices done to keep it in place.
  2. Question
    Describe what a “culture of peace” would be.
    A culture of peace is the opposite of a culture of violence. It is one in which peace is pervasive and far-reaching. Peace is an expectation and the norm, and there are spoken or unspoken practices done to keep it in place.
  3. Question
    What does it mean to be at the heart of an agenda? Why does Graça Machel believe children should be at the heart of the agenda?
    To be at the heart of the agenda means that you are at its core. You are essential to the agenda and other things are built around you. Graça believes children are the future and should be treated as such. This means placing them at the center of our agendas politically, socially and economically.
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