Nafis Sadik, UN champion for women’s reproductive rights, dies at 92

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Nafis Sadik, an obstetrician-gynecologist who in 1987 became the first woman to head a United Nations agency – the United Nations Population Fund – and was widely considered one of the most effective advocates for women’s reproductive rights worldwide, died on August 14 at her home. in Manhattan. She was 92 years old.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, Omar Sadik.

Dr. Sadik, whose maternal grandmother died in childbirth, spent his early career as a medical corps officer in Pakistan’s armed forces and with the country’s family planning programme. She was horrified by her years of meeting women living in poverty and giving birth to up to 15 children, often putting their own lives at risk. When she joined the fledgling United Nations Population Fund in 1971, she was responsible for helping poor women around the world access contraception and health care education materials.

She has spent decades confronting government leaders on the importance of raising the status of women more broadly, through access to education, jobs and more rights. “You can’t deal with population and environmental issues until you deal with individual women’s issues,” she told the Houston Chronicle.

UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar appointed Dr Sadik executive director of the Population Fund in 1987. She headed the agency – with a staff of around 800 and a budget of around 300 million – for the next 13 years amid a period of high population growth. . The agency predicted in 1990 that three new lives were being added to the planet every second.

The defining moment of her career came in 1994 when she led the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, a UN-sponsored summit to bring together 20,000 world leaders and others to discuss the threat of the over population.

She spoke of the urgent need to empower women – a sea change from previous population control efforts that saw nations impose quotas on birth rates and, in some cases, such as in China, punishments harsh on those who disobeyed. Dr. Sadik said these actions were a violation of women’s rights.

For her, decades of research had shown that if given the tools to regulate pregnancy, women would automatically reduce the birth rate.

She explained at the time to the Washington Post: “This conference is about choices and responsibilities – for the individual, the community, the nation and the world. Its purpose is to expand our freedom of choice – choice in family size, choice in population policy and programs, choice in development philosophy and practice.

She said she met Pope John Paul II in a private audience at the Vatican a few months before the Cairo conference, hoping he would overturn the Holy See’s ban on contraception, but did not made no progress and was basically introduced quickly. “He was angry with the approach we were taking,” she told reporters Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi in their 1996 papal biography, “His Holiness.” “Why did we adopt this new approach to individual rights? And I said, ‘What other kinds of rights are there?’ ”

The pope publicly blasted the conference as “a United Nations plan to destroy the family.”

During the conference, Dr. Sadik repeatedly clashed with Vatican officials over what they saw as hidden references to abortion access and approval of the procedure. She tried to play down the tension by saying the conference did not declare a fundamental right to abortion – only a desire to protect women from illegal and dangerous procedures.

Dr. Sadik, a devout Muslim, faced death threats from Muslim fundamentalists who feared she would do the US bidding to introduce Western mores into their rooms. UN security experts warned her that they feared for her life in Cairo, but her response, according to her colleague Richard Snyder, was: “If they kill me, then I will be a martyr for the cause, and it would destroy everything they want. Anyway, I don’t think I can lose this one!

Dr. Sadik insisted on adding other topics to the platform for debate, issues rarely discussed at an international conference packed with diplomats: rape, incest, fistula and female genital mutilation.

UN staff member Stirling Scruggs recalled the reaction: “Nafis brought [female genital mutilation] in the foreground, and she brought it vigorously. A lot of people said, “It’s cultural, it’s none of your business. And she said, ‘Women who are hurt, that’s our business.’ ”

By the end of the week-long conference, 179 nations had signed a plan of action to address population and development for the next 20 years – making family planning services widely available as well as taking steps to reduce disease and poverty, expand educational opportunities, and begin to envision environmentally sustainable economic development.

Dr Sadik said she had seen an increase in developing countries with UN-supported family planning programs during her tenure, but she was disappointed that more nations had failed to meet the commitments that they had taken at the Cairo conference.

In 1996, The Times of London listed Dr Sadik – who appeared a year earlier in Beijing with First Lady Hillary Clinton at the World Conference on Women – as one of the world’s 100 most powerful women. The newspaper called her an “outspoken” leader on “the policy of improving the status of women in developing countries while struggling to contain the population explosion”.

Dr Sadik was born Iffat Nafis Shoaib in Jaunpur, British-ruled India on August 18, 1929., and grew up in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and then Karachi, where his father became a government finance officer after partition in 1947; he later served as finance minister of Pakistan and vice president of the World Bank in Washington.

As a young woman, Dr. Sadik excelled in scientific studies, playing Indian classical music and badminton. She also played tournament bridge.

“I used to tell my mom sometimes that I wished I could live two lives at once,” she told The Associated Press. “She used to say, ‘You’re crazy. No one can live two lives. At that time, I wanted to change everything. … I said, I want to do something in which I will be known and contribute to society. ”

Even after she started attending Dow Medical College in Karachi – where she graduated in 1951 – she remembers her mother chiding her: “I don’t know why you’re doing all this medicine. You are not going to work. Why don’t you get married, and I’ll give you lots of jewelry and clothes? »

She married Azhar Sadik, a Pakistani army officer, in a ceremony held in Washington in 1954 and completed her midwifery residency at City Hospital in Baltimore. She soon returned to Pakistan, accompanying her husband to Abbottabad and establishing her own post for processing soldiers’ wives. She later expanded her services to include women in rural villages, often driving alone in an army jeep on rugged mountain roads.

Most problematic, she said, was that women constantly got pregnant until they gave birth to a boy — to please husbands and in-laws. “I began to understand that these poor women really had no control over their lives,” she told the AP, adding that she had bought condoms to distribute to women and talked to men about the Family Planning Village in what she described as shocking candor for a woman in those years. She once became so frustrated, Dr Sadik recalls, that she ordered men in a community to sign pledges that they would give their wives a break from constant pregnancy.

After studying public health at Johns Hopkins University in the mid-1960s, she was asked to oversee Pakistan’s five-year family planning program before joining the United Nations Population Fund as an adviser in 1971. She was already developing a reputation as a high-profile voice on population control, telling the New York Times the following year, “I say with certainty that, regardless of country or culture, no woman in the world wants a baby every year.

Her husband died in 2011 and her daughter Mehreen Sadik died in 2015. Survivors include four children, Ambereen Dar of Manhattan; Omar Sadik of Chappaqua, NY; Wafa Hasan from Boca Raton, Florida, and Ghazala Abedi from Karachi; a sister; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

After leaving the Population Fund, Dr. Sadik served for several years as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific. Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and former Director General of the World Health Organization, said: “Nafis Sadik was an exceptional agent of change. She had the passion, the stamina and the courage to make a real difference for humanity.

Cathleen Miller wrote the 2013 biography “Champion of Choice: The Life and Legacy of Women’s Advocate Nafis Sadik.”

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