Firelight and Graça Machel on making a better future for Africa’s women and children


IMG_4876“First, listen – it is their development – not yours – and their development means that it has to come from within” – Graça Machel. This was Mrs. Machel’s parting advice to a group of philanthropists and development specialists gathered to hear her speak at an event hosted by Firelight in June.  This idea of community- and Africa- led development, not donor- or western-led, was very much the evening’s theme for how women and children in Africa will overcome the challenges they still face in the 21st century.

In early June, Firelight had the honor of hosting a reception for Graça Machel, global human rights activist, former Minister of Education of Mozambique and Founder of the Graça Machel Trust (GMT).

Graça Machel – who is one of the world’s leading advocates for women’s and children’s rights and has been a social justice and political activist for many decades – joined Firelight Foundation’s Executive Director, Nina Blackwell, to talk about the critical challenges and opportunities for women and children in Africa and what the global community can do to support their advancement. The conversation was moderated by Fred Swaniker, founder of the African Leadership Academy (ALA) and African Leadership University (ALU).

Valuing women as equal to men

“Society still believes that just because you are female you deserve less.”

Mrs. Machel said in a stark recognition of what is still too true for many girls around the world.  It is this kind of thinking, she further elaborated, that leads to the systematic constraints for women and girls. Individuals who are in positions of power are the very ones who create structures that discriminate against and suppress others, thus reinforcing and perpetuating the power dynamics. Hence, changing the minds of people so that a woman’s life has the same value as a man’s life and that a woman’s dream has the same value as a man’s dream is critical in eliminating challenges for Africa’s women and girls.

Making progress for women and girls means that change needs to be internalized – the rights of women and girls need to be felt, believed and upheld at the individual and community level – for them to be truly achievable and effective. Mrs. Machel pointed to the advancements that she and other global leaders have made in putting problems like child marriage and women’s rights on the global agenda. She celebrated the progress that has been made at the United Nations, African Union and even in individual countries. Many of these changes have had external support but also required internal movements and pressure placed upon leaders and governments.  Firelight fundamentally believes that communities have the power to change the norms that value women differently from men, which is why we are supporting 22 local African community-based organizations in Rwanda, Malawi, and Tanzania to help communities change their own perspective about girls – particularly adolescent girls who are deeply vulnerable all over sub-Saharan Africa.

Strengthening institutions

She reminded the audience that legislation is only effective when there are institutions that can remind people what the law is and when communities know and respect it.  From improving education to economic empowerment to fighting corruption, Mrs. Machel stressed the importance of building strong institutions in Africa. “There is no development at its fullest which will take place when we have systems which steal from the public good. There is no way. We need to have institutions – in my continent the weakest point in the fight against corruption are the institutions,” Mrs. Machel said.

Firelight’s experience shows that community-based organizations present one of a country’s greatest assets in keeping institutions honest. By supporting grantee partners to inform their citizenry, raise awareness of wrongdoing and give communities the tools to fight corruption and violations – be it child marriage, ghost teachers, sexual violence in schools or poor teaching conditions in schools, community-based organizations are powerful enablers of community-driven transparency, truth-telling and holding those in power accountable. Community-based organizations can be the effective bridge between legal institutions and communities themselves, upholding the rights of children and citizens but also bringing those rights into the local consciousness and shifting long-held beliefs.

Networks to accelerate progress

Mrs. Machel and Firelight also believe that networks are critical to supporting change for African women and children.  By fostering knowledge sharing, movement building and creating mutual support systems, networks can serve to accelerate individual efforts. Over the last five years the Graça Machel Trust has worked to “Multiply the Faces and Amplify the Voices” of African women and children promoting and strengthening networks – of political leaders, of women entrepreneurs, of good governance - to drive social and economic change. Core to Firelight’s model is a cluster network approach which allows community-based grantees to support and learn from each other for common progress.

A child’s environment

The role of education – where much development aid and attention is focused – was also discussed at length but with a focus on the family and community environment and the mindsets that actually enable a child to thrive.   “Education decisively makes the difference,” said Mrs. Machel as she reflected on the transformative power of education on the lives of children, especially girls.  She credits her family’s support in providing her with an education as the key factor in allowing her to become the woman she is today.   But education alone is not a panacea. Mrs. Machel’s experience in her native Mozambique, that of seeing a country’s education system crumble under conflict and war, led her to pay particular attention to the environment that has to surround children in order to allow them to thrive. “If I hadn’t had the mother, the loving mother that I had…perhaps I wouldn’t be the woman I am today,” Mrs. Machel reflected.  This recognition that children grow and thrive best in families is the root of Firelight’s work to strengthen communities in order to strengthen families and has been proven true time and time again.  It is from this core that Firelight currently supports community-based organizations in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia to build effective and sustainable community-driven solutions for quality early childcare, effective primary education and meaningful secondary education for girls.

Strengthening local networks and civil society organizations also help address extraordinary challenges such as child marriage and gender-based violence which are not unique to Africa, but play a significant role in trapping millions of girls and young women in a future of economic, emotional and physical suffering. Today, approximately 39% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa are married before the age of 18, and 45.6% of women 15 years and older in Africa have experienced physical or sexual violence - the highest prevalence in the world. It is why Mrs. Machel was a founder of the advocacy coalition Girls Not Brides and today, the Graça Machel Trust supports networks and civil society organizations working towards ending child marriage.   With the cluster-based model and investing in community-based organizations, Firelight is also working in Tanzania to save young women from the practice of child marriage and to fundamentally change the structures that lead to child marriage in the first place, resulting in a reduction of child abuse and cases of child marriage.

A new call to action for donors

DSC01658The evening ended with an inspiring and thought-provoking call to action urging donors, who have done much good on the continent, to also give Africans the right to define how they want to impact their own development.  Both Firelight and the Graça Machel Trust believe that the change needed for Africa’s women and children can be supported from the outside but must inherently value local and community-based solutions and organizations who are best placed to identify what will work.   Aid can create good but it is local solutions and local ownership that will create the lasting value and culture shifts.

Firelight Foundation is deeply grateful to Mrs. Machel for sharing her passion, her time and her thoughts with us. Her life lessons and her vision for the way forward echo our own and we are proud to walk the path with leaders like her.


Read more about the Graça Machel Trust.

Read more about the Firelight Foundation.

Read more about African Leadership Academy/African Leadership University.