Women of courage: Three faces of heroism

To mark International Women's Day, Gordon Brown pays tribute to a trio of inspiring figures who have overcome poverty, oppression and tragedy to do good in the world

Tuesday 08 March 2011 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Aung San Suu Kyi

I have just heard that, once again, the Burmese authorities have denied me a visa to visit Burma to meet the greatest fighter for democracy of our generation, Aung San Suu Kyi. While I have been able to talk to her by phone, her release from house arrest in November last year has not allowed her to meet visitors from abroad, nor to travel freely in the country that gave her party an overwhelming mandate in the general election of 1990. The woman her people call Daw Suu has endured attempted assassinations, lengthy incarcerations and enforced separation from the husband she loved. Hers is a courage born of the deepest of convictions – that people can endure almost anything when their cause is just.

Her father, Aung San, grew up as an agitator at Rangoon University in the 1930s against British rule, then joined the British against the Japanese to negotiate Burma's independence. After becoming leader of the first Burmese government he was assassinated at just 32. Daw Suu, then just an infant, grew up with a legacy that was both inspiration and burden and made that legacy her own when she moved as a teenager to India with her diplomat mother and set about immersing herself in the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. It was then that she realised that military might can sometimes be overcome by moral might.

After graduation and time with the UN in New York, she and her new husband Michael Aris settled in Oxford to raise two sons. But when her mother fell ill she felt she had to return to Burma – a decision from which their family life would never recover. As the pro-democracy movement accelerated she became more involved, and on 26 August 1988 Daw Suu stood in front of half a million people to announce her entry into public life. She and colleagues established the National League for Democracy (NLD) and she became its general secretary.

The junta tried everything to silence and intimidate her: she was vilified, slandered, harassed and threatened. On 5 April 1989, Suu and her colleagues confronted an army unit, its rifles raised. She motioned for her colleagues to step aside and walked on alone towards the guns. An army major finally intervened and countermanded the order to fire upon her. The poignant scene is an allegory of her struggle for freedom in her land.

She was placed under house arrest. Initially, the military thought that visits from her family would persuade her to return with them to Oxford. Once it became clear that they supported her struggle, visas for her husband and sons were stopped. Her phone lines were cut and the letters which had initially sustained her also ceased.

Despite her being imprisoned and personally banned from standing, Daw Suu's party took 82 per cent of the seats in the general election in 1990. The results were never honoured, and the NLD was not allowed to take office.

Daw Suu endured five more years of house arrest before she was released in July 1995. But she was soon banned from addressing rallies, leaving Rangoon or having regular contact with her husband and children. A period of "unofficial imprisonment" began – made even harder by the devastating news in 1998 that Michael Aris had advanced prostate cancer and not much time to live. This brought about energetic efforts to allow them a final meeting. But the junta had a final act of torture in store – she could see him again, but only outside Burma, with no expectation that she could return. She was thus offered a choice between Burma's campaign for freedom and her family's embrace. With her family's support, she chose Burma. This was not an act of brinksmanship but a hard-headed analysis that striking a deal with the regime would leave all of its opponents without hope.

This willingness to sacrifice her family life and her own liberty is made even more poignant because she seems to be very much in love with liberty and life. She writes movingly and with great joy of ordinary things – the changing seasons, the arrival of a new baby in someone's family, the spirit of co-operation and friendship that turns ordinary working days into small celebrations of the human spirit. She is alive to the wonder and mystery of the world and drinks in its pleasures. That other people are denied the cup does not diminish her joyfulness but strengthens her resolve to secure their place at the table.

Daw Suu can never go back and can never reclaim the years she lost from the lives of those she loves, yet she continues her tireless work for democracy and remains her nation's brightest hope.

Wangari Maathai

How has a woman from one of the poorest of backgrounds come to be the energetic leader of a worldwide movement which inspires millions? The secret is not hard to find: Wangari Maathai has an irrepressible optimism about human nature. Since her schooldays, she has believed "that society is inherently good and people generally act for the best".

Born in 1940 to a Kikuyu peasant family split by the Mau Mau rising in the 1950s, she was a star at school and won a Kennedy scholarship which enabled her to gain a BSc and do a masters at Pittsburgh. By 1964 she was employed at the University of Nigeria. After research in Germany she returned to Kenya at 29 and married a rising politician. She bore three children, and became the first woman in east and central Africa to qualify for a doctorate in philosophy.

Hopes of a new democratic start for post-colonial Kenya had been dashed. President Jomo Kenyatta's likely successor was killed and the arrest of Oginga Odinga, the opposition leader, in 1969 signalled the end of multi-party rule and the beginning of a dictatorship. Options for the handful of educated Kenyan black women were limited. Wangari took on a number of roles to try to better the lot of women. She represented the Kenyan Association of University Women and joined the National Council of Women in Kenya, ending up as Kenya's Red Cross Director and Head of the Universal Women Liaison Centre. Her experience with these organisations led her to ask deep questions about who had power in the country – and who had the wisdom to govern.

She also became interested in the links between poverty and environmental degradation, and between women's rights and the good stewardship of resources. This took her on a journey that led to the founding of the Green Belt Movement – the now famous campaign to plant trees as a way of protecting land and communities from the increasing consumerism which was impacting on both.

This active public life was interrupted by an acrimonious divorce case that was used against her by an authoritarian regime seeking to prevent active civil society movements which might challenge its power. After standing up to the judge and demanding a fair trial, she was jailed for contempt of court. A popular outcry saw her released after two days, and she decided to leave Kenya.

She found work as the UN Development Programme Director in Africa, based mainly in Zambia, but was unable to take her children with her. She agreed to leave them with her husband. They stayed with him for several years; they were not reunited with her until 1985.

What encouraged Wangari to make such a sacrifice – and to persist with her work in the face of state harassment for years thereafter? She has said that she believes that her Kikuyu heritage "taught me a deep sense of justice" and has written of her eventual realisation that "my grandparents measured their happiness in ways far different from today.

"By the time my mother died in 2000 everything could be sacrificed for money... so our task became to expand democratic space in which ordinary citizens could make decisions on their own behalf... I recognised we had four core values, one of environment, gratitude for earth's resources, self-empowerment, spirit of service and volunteerism."

This strong sense of values sustained her through years of campaigning, not just for environmental causes but for democracy and women's rights as well.

Tens of thousands of women have been empowered to learn skills such as forestry thanks to her efforts, and tens of millions of trees have been planted. In 2004 she won the Nobel Peace Prize – the first African woman ever to do so.

At 70, Wangari Maathai continues to battle for what she believes in. She has been in prison, stood up to corrupt politicians and squared up to powerful vested interests. And now she has stepped up her global environmental campaign to plant one billion trees.

Hers is not an earnest or melancholy moral framework. It is infused with shining optimism: everything, for Wangari Maathai, is a miracle.

For me, she is the embodiment of what Vivian Green meant when she wrote: "Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass... It's about learning how to dance in the rain."

Graça Machel

Graça Machel is the world's greatest children's champion. She has done more to inspire a generation of African women to take positions of responsibility than anyone else in her continent. She has been responsible for a groundbreaking report that has dramatically improved the life chances of children in conflict areas. She has increased access to education for millions of Mozambican and other African children. She has championed rural African women's causes. And she has facilitated greater access for Southern African women to postgraduate education – and thus also to decision-making circles in their countries. So it is a source of exasperation to her friends when people choose to remember only that she is the only woman in history to have married the presidents of two different countries.

Born Graça Simbine in 1945, in rural Mozambique, she was sent to a Methodist mission school at the age of six. Her father died while she was young, but her siblings committed to seeing her educated. Her intelligence and tenacity were grounded by the teaching she received, and a scholarship allowed her to go to university in Portugal.

In 1973, after finishing her degree, Graça joined Frelimo (the Mozambique Liberation Front) in Tanzania. She did not know if she would ever return home to see her family. She received military training, but her main work was with women and children. Her job was to set up schools in Frelimo-occupied areas where otherwise children would go without any schooling. The Mozambican War of Independence was a murderous 10-year guerrilla conflict that led to the end of colonial rule in 1975. The leading force in free Mozambique quickly became Samora Machel, a farmer's son from a proud line of freedom-fighters. In June 1975 he became Mozambique's first post-colonial president.

Graça had met and fallen in love with Machel a year earlier, when working in the front line on the Frelimo education programme. His wife had died and he had six children. After Graça and Machel married they had two more children. Graça raised this family of eight while serving as minister of education and culture – a position from which she increased school participation and literacy from 40 per cent to 90 per cent for boys and 75 per cent for girls.

In 1986 her husband was killed in a plane crash, the cause of which has never been adequately explained. Even now Graça finds it hard to discuss those days. She resigned from government in 1989 to focus on campaigning for women and children.

In 1994 the UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali made Graça the independent expert in charge of producing the UN Report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. She spent 1994-1996 investigating the plight of children in nations beset by war. As a result of her ground-breaking report, the General Assembly authorised the Secretary-General to appoint a special representative for this issue.

The arithmetic of child deprivation assembled by Graça was heartbreaking. In the 1990s two million children died in areas of conflict. Of 40 million people who had fled their homes, 20 million were children. Graça also calculated that there were still 300,000 child soldiers aged between 10 and 12. She persuaded the UN to take the issue of children in armed conflict seriously, with the first Security Council devoted to their concerns. This became an annual event, and an office with a special representative was set up.

Graça received the 1992 Africa Prize, for her contribution to the goal of eliminating hunger in Africa. In recognition of her outstanding contributions on behalf of refugee children, she received the 1995 Nansen Medal from the UN and the 1997 Global Citizen Award of the New England Circle. In 1998 (the year that she married Nelson Mandela), she was one of the two winners of the North-South Prize, awarded annually by the Council of Europe for achievements in human rights.

Children remain the dominant theme of Graça's work. She has set up an institute for child development in Mozambique. She is raising money for the Nelson Mandela children's hospital through the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund. And I am proud that we serve together as co-convenors of the Global Campaign for Education's High Level Panel. At the same time, Graça is undertaking innovative projects to promote a new generation of female leaders for Africa. She says she is tired of being one of a handful of black female faces that television crews call when they want to hear the voice of Africa. She wants to promote instead the millions of African women whose pent-up potential is one of the world's greatest untapped resources.

Graça Machel has seen much of life and never for a moment stopped working for the things that matter. Hers is the courage that sees not what is impossible but what can change if people take the risk. It is a courage to which millions of women and children owe their life-chances – and their lives.

Gordon Brown is author of "Beyond the Crash" and "Courage". Tomorrow, the former Prime Minister writes about another woman of courage: the Lithuanian war hero, Rachel Margolis.

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