Vera Mlangazua Chirwa was born in Malawi (then Nyasaland) in 1932. Unusually for a girl in Africa at the time, her parents allowed her to be sent to school in Livingstonia and Blantyre. Shortly after leaving school she met Orton Chirwa, a teacher and political campaigner. They married in 1951. Angered by the institutional racism and discrimination in the country, Vera and Orton fought for independence and were founding members of the Malawi Congress Party in 1959. Vera became a leading figure in the League of Malawi Women and continued her education and training to become Malawi's first female lawyer, whilst looking after the couple's children. When the country gained independence in 1961, Orton Chirwa was minister of justice in the new government. In the early years of independence, however, factions emerged around the president and the Chirwas suffered years of exile and detention without trial.
Following her release from prison in 1993, as a result of major international campaigns and shortly after Orton's death in custody under suspicious circumstances, Vera Chirwa became a leading voice campaigning for human rights and civil society in Africa.