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 had 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.
When Machel arrived in Tanzania from Europe, she found an efficiently run FRELIMO headquarters operation, as well as storage facilities, supply routes, and two training camps, one run by Chinese instructors, the other by Russians. She underwent military training and learnt how to take an assault rifle apart and put it back together. Subsequently, she spent a short period in Mozambique's Cabo Delgado Province, where she met Samora Machel, the FRELIMO commander who later became her husband.
In September 1975, she married Samora Machel, the first president of newly independent Mozambique. She also became a willing stepmother to her husband's five children by his first companion, Sorita, and his first wife, Josina, who had died of leukaemia in 1971, after scarcely two years of marriage. Samora and Graca Machel have two children of their own.
During the war for independence from the Portuguese rule, FRELIMO set up schools in liberated territories and within their training camps in neighbouring Tanzania. Machel participated in the armed struggle, and she was appointed Deputy Director of the Frelimo Secondary School at Bagamoyo, Tanzania, in 1974.
When Mozambique became independent and FRELIMO formed the country’s first government in 1975, Machel became a member of Frelimo's Central Committee and the Minister of Education and Culture. As Minister for Education until 1989, Graça Machel worked to implement FRELIMO's goal of universal education for all Mozambicans. From 1975 to 1985, the number of students enrolled in primary and secondary schools rose from about 40 percent of all school-aged children to over 90 percent for males and 75 percent for females.
Machel is recognised for her dedication to educating the people of Mozambique, and for her leadership in organisations devoted to the children of her war-torn country. She has been a major force in increasing literacy and schooling in Mozambique and has spoken of the needs and rights of children, families and community, from platforms all over the world.
Following President Machel’s death in a plane crash on 19 October 1986, she resigned her post as Minister of Education, leaving behind a sterling record-1.5 million children in school, as against 400,000 when she had arrived. As Minister of Education to the new government, she was able to reduce the illiteracy rate by 72%.
Machel has striven for peace and reconciliation in her country, and has attempted to further Mozambique's reconstruction and development efforts. As President of the Foundation of Community Development, she has facilitated greater community access to knowledge and technology and patterns of sustainable human development.
In recognition of the particular devastation of war on children, Machel became Chairperson of the National Organization of Children of Mozambique, an organization that places orphans in village homes while reinforcing the role of the family and community in the healing process. Machel worked closely with families in her efforts to rehabilitate children, and to empower Mozambican women.
Machel has also participated in international fora, as a delegate to the 1988 UNICEF conference in Harare, Zimbabwe, and as the President of the National Commission of UNESCO in Mozambique. In addition to her many contributions, Machel also served on the international steering committee of the World Conference on Education for All, held in 1990.
As chair of Mozambique's National Organization of Children and president of the country's UNESCO commission, Machel was asked to chair a study to assist young victims of Mozambique’s civil war that was published by the United Nations (UN) on 11 November 1996. Machel's recommendations for rehabilitation called on UNICEF to begin resettling all displaced children, and to start funds specifically for their re-education. Machel's report also focused on landmines. Her report endorsed the idea that humanitarian mine clearance should become a routine part of all peace agreements, and that the countries, which have profited from the manufacture and sale of these lethal weapons should bear the huge cost of their removal.
She was appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations as an Expert to Chair the Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. The Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, the first of its kind in the history on the United Nations, demonstrated to the world community the necessity of adopting effective measures for the promotion and protection of the rights of the children who are victims of armed conflicts, and to stimulate much greater international action to this end.
Machel is President of the Foundation for Community Development (FDC), a "not for” profit organisation,she founded in 1994. 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.
In the 1990s, the friendship between Graca and Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa, whom Machel has known since her husband's death deepened. The couple married on 18 July 1998.
Over the years, Machel has gained international recognition for her achievements. Her many awards include the Laureate of Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger from the Hunger Project in 1992 and in 1995 the Nansen Medal in recognition of her contribution to the welfare of refugee children. She has received the Inter Press Service’s (IPS) International Achievement Award for her work on behalf of children internationally, the Africare Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award and the North-South Prize of the Council of Europe, among others.
In 2008, the University of Barcelona, Spain, awarded a Doctor Honoris Causa to Machel. She has served on the boards of numerous international organisations, including the UN Foundation, the Forum of African Women Educationalists, the African Leadership Forum and the International Crisis Group. Among her many commitments, she is Chair of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization Fund, Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, South Africa and a Panel Member of the African Peer Review Mechanism.