Graca Machel: Within Ten Years Women Will Have Changed Africa

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia's President, has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her peaceful leadership of the war-torn country. Johnson is Africa's first elected female head of state -- and she and other female leaders on the continent have Graca Machel to thank. Thanks to an illustrious career in African politics, including her long tenure as Mozambique's Minister of Education and her marriage to two revered African presidents, Machel is an icon for African women. Machel married Nelson Mandela on his 80th birthday, in 1998.

In fact, predicts the Mozambican ex-revolutionary, women will completely change Africa within the next decade. But, she tells Metro, it's also high time to talk about the continent's dirty problem: child marriage. Each year 10 million young girls, some as young as seven or eight, are married off to older men. Machel recently launched Girls not Brides,, with former Prime Minister Gro Brundtland of Norway.

What's your reaction to this year's Nobel Peace Prize? Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to three outstanding women from Liberia and Yemen is a recognition that while women pay the highest price in conflicts, they are equally leaders in peace-making and rebuilding.

Does Africa have gender-balance today? In many African countries there has been progress. Women have access to education, professional careers, even political life. But the progress has been slow. Women are 50% of the population, so they should make up 50% of business leaders, for example. Where we Africans have made better progress has been education. There we can talk. The female government ministers and members of parliament you see today -- there are even some vice-presidents and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as an elected head of state -- serve as a model and show African women, "we can make it".

Is a fundamental change afoot in Africa? I think that in 10 years time Africa will be a completely different landscape. It's already happening. With regards to women: skilled and ambitious women will be at the highest levels of decision-making, both in politics, business and science & technology. There's a new generation of female leaders coming.

In other words, young talented Africans won't go abroad to study and pursue a career, as you did when you went to Portugal? Lots of Africans attend university at home; in fact, we now have more female than male students. But young Africans should study abroad to get wider horizons and learn about the global family Africa belongs to. It's important that they go to the best universities in the world and get internships in the best companies in the world -- and then come back to Africa with that expertise. Then they'll be able to build Africa, but also relate to the globalized world.

In the West, girls are exposed to a very sexualized culture at an extremely young age. Is the West actually a worse place for girls to grow up than Africa? Our era is very impatient for girls to grow. It's not exclusively a European, African or Asian issue. We, as humankind, have come to a level of morality where some people see human beings as a commodity. That's why there's a huge industry trafficking girls, and prostitution and pornography. That's because some people in the 21st century believe that money is something you can get at any price, even if it means buying or selling a human being. Young women are especially vulnerable. I don't think the West is better place to be for young women than Africa or Asia. African and Asian girls face the prospect of child marriage, but what do you say when a girl is sexually abused in the West? The question we have to consider is: what happens when a generation chooses money as the top priority?

As a young revolutionary, you joined Mozambique's first government after independence. Have your visions for Mozambique and Africa been realized? Partly. I gave my youthful years to a cause that has not been completely fulfilled. I thought we'd have eradicated illiteracy by now. I thought every single child would be attending school by now. I thought there would be more women in top positions by now. On the other hand, when I look at how many young women are now at university, I think, "OK, we've done pretty well". It wouldn't be fair for me to say that there hasn't been any progress. Mozambique has one of the highest levels of female Members of Parliament. It even has a female Speaker of the Parliament. In the judiciary, too, there are many women. I'm proud of the progress that has been made. But am I happy? No! I want much more to happen! I want women to protect their interests and fight for the rights.

Why do you feel so strongly about child brides? I've been involved with this ever since I became Minister of Education. I noticed that girls were fully involved in school at age seven, but when they turned 10 they suddenly dropped out. That's because in African cultures girls go through certain rituals around age 10, which prepare them for adulthood. That includes marriage. The girls accept it as normal to get married. But the girl doesn't choose whom to get married to -- her family does. Usually there's an exchange of favors, or parents settle debts by marrying of their girl. After a girl gets married she's expected to prove her fertility, so she's forced to give birth when starting when she's 11 or 12 years old. Of course, her body is not ready for that, so she risks complications like a burst uterus, or she may even die at childbirth.

Why has so little changed? Things have changed! In the past two decades, the number of African girls enrolled in secondary school and universities has grown fast. But 10 million girls are still married off every year, and that's why I'm concerned about. The problem is that the world doesn't talk about it. People talk about maternal mortality, but not child marriage! It's because girls marry young that they so often die in childbirth. Nobody is paying attention to these girls' plight.

If the West told Africans and Asians to stop child marriage, wouldn't it smack of colonialism? No. Today child marriage is treated as if it's a family issue, so politicians don't deal with it as a political or cultural issue. Many people are very cautious to go against an issue that's seen as an entrenched tradition, a cultural practice or even part of indigenous religious beliefs. But this is a universal issue. You can't say, "this is not my business". But the leadership for this social ill has to be taken by the countries themselves. And it's not just Chad, Niger, Ethiopia and Mozambique -- it's many countries.

One part of the equation are the men who marry these young girls. Can they be taught not to? It takes at least a generation to change social ills. Families have to be taught that it's not in their interest to sacrifice their future. Young men are a crucial piece in this. We have to teach them that selling girls is not tolerable. Then, when they become adults, they may not marry young girls. The young generation of men has to learn that girls and women don't need a brother, a husband or a father to be in charge of them.

What about girls who have already been married off? Are they a lost generation? In Ethiopia there's a program for young wives. Some of these girls leave their marriages and start a completely new life. But in most cases it would be very difficult to undo the marriage. But we can help the young wives to get a better life. They can get an education, which allows them to develop skills so they can learn a living. That brings back their self-confidence. They can even become empowered women who lead a fulfilling life.

FACTBOX: Name: Graca Machel Background: Born into a rural family in Mozambique. Educated in Portugal. Career: Joined Mozambique's Marxist Frente de Libertação de Moçambique liberation movement; became education minister when Mozambique gained independence from Portugal in 1975. In power until 1989. Family: Married Mozambique's new President, Samora Machel, in 1975. Machel died in a plane crash over South Africa in 1986. Married Nelson Mandela on his 80th birthday, in 1998. In the news: leads Girls Not Brides, a new international initiative to end child marriage

Child married before age 18 72%: Chad 66%: Bangladesh 63%: Guinea 61%: Central African Republic 49%: Ethiopia 47%: India 40%: Dominican Republic 39%: Afghanistan 23%: Colombia 22%: Ecuador

Previously published in Metro,