South Africa’s former first lady Graça Machel is a strong advocate for the end of gender-based violence (GBV), and a supporter for the protection of women and girls everywhere. 

A Mozambican politician and humanitarian, and widow of human rights champion Nelson Mandela, Machel has stood beside the country’s women as they’ve demanded an end to GBV, while also having her own personal reasons, like most women in the country, for raising her voice against the devastating phenomenon. 

Josina Machel, her daughter, has been going through a public GBV case for the past few years, after she lost her right eye in a 2015 assault by her then partner, according to Amnesty International. She is still waiting for justice.  

On this case and countless others that South African women have faced, Graça Machel has been vocal about the urgent need to protect the country’s women and children from the violence, and resolve the lack of justice that so often sees perpetrators walking away.

GBV has long plagued South Africa and it remains a persistent issue that has taken lives, haunted citizens, and brought the entire country to a standstill on many occasions. While policy changes have been in the works, and several campaigns have been put together by both the government and concerned organisations to call for an end to the abuse, more needs to be done to erase it from the country entirely.

Machel has been one of the many leading voices in the call for change, and has appealed to the country’s citizens and leaders to take definitive action in bringing about justice for survivors, and eradicating such violence indefinitely. Here are seven of Machel’s most powerful quotes against GBV in South Africa:

1. “If we are here in solidarity, with this beauty of unity, in our pain, we have to pledge to do something to make this country of ours a country which is safe.”

As the former Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Machel spoke at a memorial service for student, Uyinene Mrwetyana, who was assaulted and murdered in 2019. 

Mrwetyana’s case shook the whole country and at her memorial service, held on the university’s campus, Machel delivered a heartfelt speech during which she reminded students and the country that the issue of GBV has to be dealt with at the root in order for it to end. 

“We are a society where women, and children by the way, are not safe anywhere. Something absolutely and deeply wrong is happening in our society,” she said.

She continued: “The problem is not the consequences of what’s happening, it’s the root causes of why and how we got where we are as a society.”

2. “A ‘pandemic within a pandemic’ has been exposed.”

In 2020 South Africa’s police commissioner, Bheki Cele, confirmed that there was an increase in cases of GBV over the country’s lockdown period — leading resident Cyril Ramaphosa to dub it South Africa’s second pandemic

After this confirmation and while South Africa was still experiencing a strict lockdown, Machel wrote a piece in the Guardian explaining that violence against women and children was on the rise, and something needed to be done. 

She said: “A ‘pandemic within a pandemic’ has been exposed and we are confronted with the horrific reality that millions of women and children — in every country — are fighting for their survival, not just from COVID-19 but from the brutalities of abusers in the prisons of their homes.”

Machel went on to call for creative solutions to be applied to the disastrous phenomenon that is GBV, in the same way that the world sought creative solutions to the pandemic. 

3. “We are proving that we can come together as a united human family to holistically tackle COVID-19, let us apply an equally comprehensive, vigorous, and unrelenting focus to eradicating gender-based violence as well.”

Her article in the Guardian continues, highlighting that if the world can unite and agree to end the pandemic, then we can do the same with sexual violence and abuse.

She pointed out that the pandemic has allowed nations to look deeper and identify their flaws — with a major flaw being incessant violence against women and children. Now that the flaw has been highlighted, she went on to say, it must be overcome by the same dedication that the world has put towards ending the COVID-19 pandemic. 

4. “The innovation and resilience of grassroots justice groups continues to give me hope in these dark times.”

Machel then praised the work that grassroots organisations have done and are doing to continue raising awareness on GBV and to keep the conversation alive.

“They too are on the front lines,” she said in the Guardian article. “Leading rights awareness campaigns, adapting to deliver legal advice remotely, and ensuring disadvantaged groups are not overlooked.”

5. “There are precious lives between these cold numbers.”

At Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s International Peace Lecture, which he hosted on his birthday on Oct. 7, Machel, who delivered an impassioned speech on violence and abuse against young girls, brought to the audience’s attention that the country is experiencing increasing rates of child pregnancy. 

She said the number of teenage mothers had increased by 60% during the pandemic, and urged attendees to think about the lives behind the statistics.

“These are the beautiful faces,” she said, “the brilliant minds and vibrant voices of our daughters, nieces, sisters, whose childhood and innocence we have left unprotected, and these shocking statistics on teenage pregnancy do not even paint an accurate nor comprehensive picture of our shameful disregard for young people we claim to love and cherish.”

6. “Why has what is so grotesquely abnormal become normalised to us in this country.”

This powerful quote is from the same speech delivered at the peace lecture. 

She continued: “The land of Tutu and Madiba’s [Mandela] birth, and on this continent, the home of greats such as Wangari Maathai and Gertrude Mongella? It is an affront to the nobility of our ancestors to allow our youngest generations to suffer in the ways they do.”

Machel has consistently said that GBV has tainted her dream of a truly united country, also something she highlighted at Mrwetyana’s memorial service. She raises the point here that while the country and the African continent have given the world leaders in peace and unity that all citizens look up to, violence has proven to be a huge setback in achieving true unity. 

7. “Violence is the breast milk we are feeding our young.”

With this, Machel illustrated how violence has to be dealt with at its source, explaining that the youth are facing and being brought up in the midst of the consequences of GBV not being adequately dealt with.

“We have to change our mindsets, our behaviours, our value system,” she continued, speaking at the peace lecture. “We must reinvent our relationships and re-engineer the way we relate in our families, in our schools, in our workplaces with the spirit of ubuntu that [Archbishop Tutu] taught us and exudes with every fibre of his being.”

If you’re in South Africa and you or someone you know has experienced gender-based or sexual violence, you can find resources for support here or you can call the SA National GBV helpline on 0800 150 150. Further international resources can be found here.

Women’s rights are human rights — and they must be promoted and protected. This 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10, we’re asking Global Citizens to join us for our #16Days Challenge, to take a simple action each day that will help you learn more about women’s rights, bodily autonomy, and gender violence online. 

You’ll start important conversations with your loved ones, advocate on social media for women’s and girls’ right to their own bodies, support women-owned businesses in your community, sign petitions to support bodily autonomy, and more. Find out more about the #16Days Challenge and start taking action here

Global Citizen Life

Demand Equity

7 Stirring Quotes From Graça Machel on Gender-Based Violence in South Africa

By Khanyi Mlaba