This is the story of two inspiring African leaders: Graça Simbine Machel the former First Lady of Mozambique and of South Africa, and Zainab Bangura, the first woman to run for the Presidency in Sierra Leone. Each has worked for women’s rights and good governance. Each has years of service in politics and numerous honors and recognitions. The world would benefit from more leaders like them.
Graça Simbine Machel was born in 1945 in what is today Mozambique. Her father, a Methodist minister died three weeks before she was born. Ms. Machel attended mission schools before a church-based scholarship in 1968 enabled her to study at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. While still in Europe, Ms. Machel joined FRELIMO, an organized resistance movement against Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique.
Suspecting that she was under surveillance by the Portuguese secret police, Ms. Machel fled to Switzerland and then to Tanzania where she underwent military training at a FRELIMO camp. From Tanzania she returned to neighboring Mozambique in 1973, where she met Samora Machel, a FRELIMO commander who became her husband and the first President of independent Mozambique in 1975.
First Lady Machel became the Minister of Education and Culture in 1975. Through her post Graça Machel worked to implement FRELIMO’s goal of universal education for Mozambicans. In her more than a decade in office, she helped raise primary and secondary school enrollment from around 40 percent to over 90 percent for males and to 75 percent for females.
Ms. Machel has assisted orphans by serving as Chairperson of the National Organization of Children of Mozambique. She has served as a delegate to the 1988 UNICEF conference in Harare, Zimbabwe, as the President of the National Commission of UNESCO in Mozambique, and on the international steering committee of the 1990 World Conference on Education for All.
First Lady Machel was widowed in 1986, following the death of President Machel in a plane crash. In the 1990s, a friendship developed between Ms. Machel and Nelson Mandela, the President of South Africa, and Ms. Machel once again became a First Lady when the couple married in 1998. The two remained together until Mandela’s death in late 2013. She is the only woman in the world who has been the First Lady to two liberation presidents.
In 1990, Ms. Machel created the first indigenous non-governmental organization in Mozambique. In 1994, the organization was transformed into the Foundation for Community Development (FCD) Mozambique with Ms. Machel as its President. The FCD is Mozambique’s first endowed grant-making foundation. By 2003, the FCD had mobilized more than $11 million to help fund more than 100 social development initiatives that directly benefitted 35,000 Mozambicans.
In 1996, Ms. Machel wrote The Impact of War on Children, an influential UNICEF report. Ms. Machel’s New Faces, New Voices is a Pan-African advocacy group that focuses on expanding the role and influence of women in the financial sector and the Graça Machel Trust seeks to improve the lives of women and children as well as governance and leadership.
Ms. Machel’s many awards include the Laureate of Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger in 1992 and the Nansen Medal in recognition of her contribution to the welfare of refugee children in 1995. In 1997 she was made an honorary Dame by the Order of the British Empire. She has received the Inter Press Service’s International Achievement Award, the Africare Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award, and the North-South Prize of the Council of Europe. In 2007 she became one of the founding members of The Elders, a group of leaders that seek to address some of world’s most pressing problems. Ms. Machel is the recipient of a 2014 Clinton Global Citizen Award, Chair of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization Fund, and Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
Zainab Hawa Bangura was born in 1959 to a family of limited means in the small town of Yonibana in Sierra Leone’s Northern Province. She received a scholarship to attend secondary school, and after obtaining her Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and History from the University of Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College in 1983, she earned advanced diplomas in Insurance Management from two UK-based institutions. By the time she had reached her early 30s, Ms. Bangura was the Vice President of one of Sierra Leone’s largest insurance companies.
In the early 1990s, when Sierra Leone was being ruled by a military junta, Ms. Bangura became a social activist. As the daughter of a market woman, Ms. Bangura started raising consciousness among urban market women. In 1994 she founded Women Organized for a Morally Enlightened Nation (WOMEN), the first non-partisan women’s rights group in the country. In 1995, she co-founded the Campaign for Good Governance and successfully campaigned for the holding of national elections. In 1996 Sierra Leone held its first free and fair elections in 25 years. Many in the country credited Ms. Bangura with restoring democracy.
During Sierra Leone’s civil war (1991–2002) Ms. Bangura spoke out against the atrocities committed by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the corruption of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah’s soldiers. She was targeted for assassination several times by the RUF. In 2002 she became the first woman in Sierra Leone to run for the presidency, but her Movement for Progress (MOP) party secured few votes against Kabbah.
Ms. Bangura went on to found the National Accountability Group to fight corruption and promote transparency and accountability in government. In 2006 she was appointed the Director of the Civil Affairs Office in the United Nations Mission in Liberia. The position placed her in charge of the reconstruction of 16 Liberian ministries and 30 government agencies and enabled her to work with a woman she greatly admired, Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state.
In 2007, Ms. Bangura returned to Sierra Leone where she was named Foreign Minister by President Ernest Bai Koroma, the second woman to hold that position. From 2010 to 2012 Ms. Bagura served as President Koroma’s Minister of Health and Sanitation. In mid-2012, she was appointed as the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict.
Ms. Bangura has been the recipient of several international awards for her role in the promotion of democracy and human rights in Africa, including: the African International Award of Merit for Leadership (1999); the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights Human Rights Award (2000); the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s Bayard Rustin Humanitarian Award (2002), the National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Award (2006) and Project 1808 Inc.’s award (2013).
Ms. Bangura remains willing to speak up against what she views as wrong with the world, even when doing so draws negative attention including threats of violence. She also does not fear to challenge what is customary or popular and believes that anything is possible if people work together for the common good.