Nelson Mandela left us in 2013, but his wife, Graça Machel, remains an endearing symbol of his generous spirit and leadership. She’s still hard at work in Africa, promoting a vision she shared with Mandela – that we can achieve anything when we work collectively rather than individually. Graça Machel has played an historic role in two African nations, Mozambique and South Africa. After her marriage to former Mozambique president Samora Machel ended after a fatal plane crash in 1986 she married again in 1998. This time, to an iconic figure who possesed the same values and visionary leadership that she held dear – Nelson Mandela. An historic situation arose that made her the first woman in history to have been the First Lady of two different countries.

In true generous spirit, Mandela gave the world a gift on his 89th birthday when he announced the formation of The Elders – a group that includes Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and nine other notable individuals.

In true generous spirit, Mandela gave the world a gift on his 89th birthday when he announced the formation of The Elders – a group that includes Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and nine other notable individuals. The Elders work globally and describe themselves as “independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights.” The goal Mandela set for The Elders was to use their almost 1,000 years of collective experience to work on solutions for seemingly insurmountable problems, such as climate change, HIV/AIDS and poverty, as well as to use their political independence to help resolve some of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Machel has led The Elders’ work on child marriage, and was the founder of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.

Not satisfied with settling on the title First Lady, Machel embarked on humanitarian work that took calculated risks to achieve results. She has challenged the staus quo business-as-usual mentality on many occassions while striving to deliver results for women and children. Mandela had always liked strong women and might be considered the ultimate male feminist. For him, democracy and gender equality were not separate issues.

His relationship with Machel created a formidable team that worked together on a global scale for the greater good, despite the onset of old age when many of their peers would have been seeking a more sedentary lifestyle. There was great respect and affection between them. Hillary Clinton recalled her fondest memory of the couple when she last saw them together: “What I like to remember is the way Madiba’s face would light up when he saw Graça come into a room or even heard her voice,” she says. “I think it is fair to say that Madiba had very good judgment and in Graça he found a partner worthy of his own incomparable soul.”

It was also a relationship forged on shared values and struggles. When Machel lost her first husband, Madiba wrote to her offering condolences and she replied, “From within your vast prison you have brought a ray of light into my hour of darkness.” A schoolteacher turned freedom fighter, she served as Mozambique’s Minister of Education for nearly 15 years. Under Machel’s leadership, primary school enrolment increased from only 40 percent in 1975 to more than 90 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls by 1989.

Under Machel’s leadership, primary school enrolment increased from only 40 percent in 1975 to more than 90 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls by 1989.

At the height of the recent financial crisis, she listened to talk of restructuring the financial system and analyzing what had gone wrong. She called a group of young people in the financial sector and said, “Look, moments of crisis are moments of opportunity.” From that sentiment, Machel started a powerful network of African women in finance that has already held three summits attended by ministers of finance, along with the CEOs of the largest financial banks and institutions on the continent. “We now have huge support from the African Development Bank and we engage with women in financial institutions who need to be encouraged to take up leadership positions,” says Machel.

“One of the things we’ve succeeded in doing with this network is creating new faces and voices within the financial sector; not only in Africa but within global institutions too. We’re not just trying to change the financial landscape but also to influence the thinking within financial institutions that will bring about more opportunities for women.” Many organizations talk about how critical health and education are for women, but access to credit, and being able to start and grow a business, is at the core of whether or not women and girls will have economic opportunities. It’s an area that is increasingly being recognized as critical to the development of emerging economies. Machel’s work with The Elders on child marriage and her studies on children in conflict may be highly  symbolic, but have an important role to play in changing a world where women and children are increasingly the victims of conflict – more than at any time in history.

“The Elders work with countries in conflict in a very subtle way,” says Machel.

“The Elders work with countries in conflict in a very subtle way,” says Machel. “We encourage people in an informal setting to look into each other’s minds and recognize that they belong to the same nation.” The issue of child marriage is a slightly more challenging one, ingrained, as it often is, among cultural and religious beliefs. Machel believes there are situations that allow much to be achieved in this area, but that you need to be strategic. Simple finger wagging won’t work.

“I like to use the phrase ‘sowing the seeds of social change’,” says Machel. “You need to give people incentives.” Rather than moral lectures, Machel believes that by presenting the economic benefits against child marriage, she will have a greater effect. “We talk about the importance of education and keeping children in school until they complete at least secondary level,” she says. “This is an age when you’re old enough to make a decision on whether you want to get married, to whom and whether you want to have a child. No child of 10 or 14 years old has a body that is ready for marriage and because they are then expected to have children themselves, we highlight the relationship between child marriage and maternal mortality and child mortality,” says Machel.

These facts help people see for themselves the economic short-sightedness of risking the lives of family members for social norms, rather than ensuring their longevity and reaping long-term benefits. “We need to change mindsets and allow the child to grow and have opportunities,” says Machel. “It’s a long and difficult process and we work with community and religious leaders. Organized religion in Africa has a huge network and through these institutions, we work to protect children from marriage.

We are building a new generation of women and also changing the mindset of people – that if a child is born a girl, she has the same rights as a boy.”