Avabai Wadia: Lawyer, social worker and family planning pioneer | #IndianWomenInHistory
“It seems like my life’s work presented itself to me rather than consciously seeking it. . . I did not find it useless not to pursue a legal career, because the law was a strengthening element in everything I undertook.», Avabai Wadia in his autobiography The Light is ours.
At a time when India was gradually recovering from the scars of colonialism, a nineteen-year-old sari-clad woman from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) made international headlines. She was Avabai Wadia, the first woman from one of Southeast Asia’s leading countries to pass her bar exam in the UK.
Its success not only impacted the women of Ceylon but also greatly improved the social conditions of women in neighboring countries like India. Apart from being a lawyer, she was also the first woman to work on the idea of family planning in India, a concept that was too foreign and revolting at the time.
Birth and education
Avabai Wadia was born into a highly respected and progressive Parsi family in 1913 in colonial Ceylon. In 1928, when she was fifteen, Wadia moved to London to accompany her mother. She met her brother there, then a student at Cambridge. Being part of an extremely ambitious family, Avabai Wadia was always encouraged in her upbringing. She later also attended Brondesbury and Kilburn High School in London.
Wadia, as a child, had already decided to become a lawyer. She started dating the Court Inns since she was only nineteen. When she sat for the bar exam in 1934, she was truly prepared. Therefore, being selected was not very difficult for her, but what she found difficult was what came next. Thus, she became the first woman from Ceylon to pass her bar exams. From there, a journey began that left behind quite a legacy.
Life, Contributions and Pioneering Initiatives
Avabai Wadia is known for her efforts to apply the insight of a female lawyer in the area of the social upliftment of women, which was a very serious issue in her day and remains so today. While in the British Commonwealth, she came into contact with several British social reformers, and her interactions with a circle of British women’s organizations made her realize what she needed at home.
Just after World War II, Wadia moved to Bombay in 1939 to spend some time in India before returning to Ceylon. While practicing law with a Parsi lawyer, she simultaneously engaged in volunteer work with groups like the Women’s Political Union and All India Women’s Conference.
In 1941 she moved to Bombay again and this time for a permanent stay. She had met her future husband, Dr. Bomanji Wadia, whom she would later marry in 1946. From then on, she immersed herself in social work. She came into close contact with family planning advocates through her ongoing work with the All India Women’s Conference.
During these years, an issue that caught Avabai Wadia’s attention was that of family planning and women’s reproductive health. Spoken in a low voice, family planning was then only a taboo for the Indians. This was mainly due to religious conservatism linked to issues of racism and eugenics. Wadia mentioned that she herself was revolted upon hearing the words “birth control‘ for the first time. However, her thought process changed when she heard a female doctor in Bombay say that most Indian women don’t ‘oscillated between gestation and lactation until death ended in a sad story‘. It affected her deeply.
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This led to the establishment of The Planned Parenthood Association of India (FPAI) in 1949 which Avabai Wadia would eventually lead for 34 years. The organization is dedicated to improving women’s reproductive health and women’s rights. Wadia unofficially became the first woman to work for birth control in the history of family planning in India. His motives were therefore instrumental in India’s first five-year plan which was declared years later.
Under Avabai Wadia, a decentralized and community-based approach was ensured at the FPAI. She has worked with villagers, urban poor and minority women in the most remote areas of India. Her projects were not just limited to family planning, but also to the upliftment of women through education, skill development, improved communications, and other factors that women sorely lacked.
Wadia’s approach to these women was unique. They would employ creative techniques like singing bhajans, which were devotional songs, as a means of communicating with them. This community approach is what has helped her and the FPAI to reach large sections of society who are totally unaware and illiterate. Their innovative styles brought about marked changes and, for the first time in history, a positive attitude towards family planning was encouraged in many.
Projects, impact and legacy
A project that Wadia and the FPAI undertook was in Malur, Karnataka in the 1970s. dedicated work reduced infant mortality over the years, doubled literacy rates among all, and showed a significant increase in the average age of marriage. The results so impressed the villagers that they took over the management of the project shortly after the departure of the FPAI.
Avabai Wadia also organized welded groups women in the villages and encouraged discussions on social issues that often ranged from dowry to the under-representation of women in politics. These discussions opened many people’s eyes and encouraged them to fight harder to improve women’s reproductive health rights.
In 1952 Wadia herself suffered a miscarriage and returned to London to recuperate. The FPAI, which was in full swing at the time, also promoted contraceptive methods to the population. Later, when she returned to Bombay, Wadia said her work promoting contraceptives and fertility services had finally given her a ‘a real feeling of satisfaction‘ due to his own lack of children. His efforts in this area were instrumental in making the Indian government the first in the world to promote family planning policies in 1951-52.
Six months after her stay in London, Avabai Wadia returned to Bombay stronger and more resilient. She led efforts to organize the Third International Conference on Family Planning. The conference had attracted the attention of many even beyond India and brought together several other family planning associations. I have also been assisted by some of the greatest luminaries in the family planning world.
On the day of the conference, the decision to officially launch the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) was voted on by delegates. Thus was born an organization that would have Avabai Wadia as one of its leading international figures for a number of years. She also eventually expanded IPPF in London by establishing global regional offices working for a united cause. Thanks to his efforts, IPPF was the first non-governmental organization to receive the United Nations Population Prize in 1985. The organization is also eternally grateful for all progress he did under his direction.
Despite several challenges beginning with social ostracization, male atrocities and political impositions, Avabai Wadia has continued her work. Under her care, death rates were reduced, funds were raised, women’s rights to health were affirmed and India was elevated to a global bar. She had also dared to talk about abortion laws when it was almost impossible to think about them.
Avabai Wadia died on July 11, 2005. Her cause of uplifting women remained important to her until her death. She used her privilege of belonging to a wealthy background well and left a legacy of several improvements for women till today. She still lives among us through all her contributions and the multiple organizations that bear her name, all fighting for her cause.
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