This lawyer led India to adopt the world’s first national family planning program
Before India pioneered nationwide family planning in 1952, concepts such as “birth control” and “women’s agency” seemed alien at best, given that forced motherhood and parenthood unwanted were not considered matters requiring urgent intervention.
Outside the confines of the Indian subcontinent, leaders like Margaret Sanger had already begun to push for the creation of planned parenthood organizations that would allow women access to birth control. Closer to home, the movement began to germinate around the 1940s when activists, including a lawyer named Avabai Wadia, decided to join the cause.
Today, Wadia’s name is synonymous, alongside Lady Dhanvanti Rama Rau, with family planning and birth control in India. But getting here would be a long and arduous journey.
It was not the singular feat Wadia achieved in her lifetime – in 1933, when she was just 19, she made international headlines when she became Ceylon’s first woman ( Sri Lanka) to pass the bar exam in the UK. Her success led the Ceylonese government to allow women to study law in the country.
For Wadia, family planning was “a way to help women escape the trap of biological compulsion and societal pressures for frequent pregnancies, which could ruin their health, cause their children to be neglected, impoverish families and maintain women related to procreation”. ”.
At the time, this notion was not overwhelmingly supported by the leaders of the freedom struggle – who were overwhelmingly male conservatives. Either way, Wadia was convinced that proper family planning was the need of the hour, despite the fact that there was a time when she didn’t always believe it.
However, as is common, personal experiences would help him realize the opposite.
Understand the importance of family planning
Born in 1913 into a Parsi family in Colombo, she moved to London at the age of 15 with her mother, reuniting with her brother who was studying at the University of Cambridge at the time. She attended Brondesbury and Kilburn High School in London.
She worked in London and Colombo as a lawyer, facing constant prejudice for her gender. The Guardian wrote: “She was called to the bar in 1934 and, although work experience in a law firm was easily found, securing a place in a firm proved far more elusive. Few people would accept a woman in a law firm, and she was repeatedly rejected.
At the outbreak of World War II, she came to India in 1939. Apart from working as a lawyer, she also volunteered with organizations such as the Women’s Political Union and the All India Women’s Conference. India.
In the early 1940s, his father decided to return to India after retiring and the family moved to Bombay. [Mumbai]. Here she would meet her future husband Bomanji Khurshedji Wadia. They married in 1946 and separated some time later.
In the late 1940s, while working with the AIWC, she began working closely with family planning advocates, which first introduced her to reproductive and health rights – which , at the time, faced strong opposition from religious conservatives.
Avabai would later admit, “The first time I heard the words ‘birth control,’ I was revolted.” But she got dragged into it because of a comment a doctor made.
“I was deeply influenced by a woman doctor from Bombay who said that women today oscillate between gestation and lactation until their death,” she recalls in her autobiography. The light is ours: memories and movements.
Despite the threat of social ostracism, she dives into the field. Avabai believed that family planning could improve women’s lives and emphasized that family planning would only be successful if done voluntarily and through informed choice.
Take revolutionary action
In 1949, this understanding would lead to the establishment of the Family Planning Association of India (FPAI), where she served as president for 34 years. The organization started by introducing population education at the university level, eventually expanding to youth sex education, community mobilization, and more.
Years later, Avabai would recall that the job gave her “a real sense of satisfaction,” having had miscarriages and had no children of her own. FPAI’s work also included fertility and contraception services, alongside a decentralized and community-based approach, where they worked with people from all walks of life, especially minority women living in the most remote corners of India. . Avabai would find different ways to help women from all walks of life understand the importance of family planning, including relaying important information in the form of bhajans (religious songs).
Over the years, the work of the FPAI has reduced the infant mortality rate, increased the age of marriage and doubled the literacy rate. The project received broad support from the villagers. For the first time, people had a positive attitude toward family planning and were actively spreading the message.
Through his efforts, the Indian government became the first in the world to officially include family planning policies in 1951-52 in its first five-year plan.
In 1952 Avabai suffered a miscarriage and went to London to recuperate, but soon returned to her job in India.
Back in Bombay, she organized the Third International Conference on Family Planning, attended by giants in the field, including Margaret Sanger and Elise Ottesen-Jensen. On the final day of the conference, delegates voted on forming an international federation, which gave birth to the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).
As part of the IPPF, it worked to include more countries, formed self-governing associations within the federation and raised funds. She served as president for two terms in the 1980s. Under her leadership, IPPF became the first NGO to win the United Nations Population Prize in 1985 and a third global prize of $100,000 in 1987.
Avabai faced a serious challenge in the early 1980s, when US President Ronald Regan announced that the United States would withdraw support from any organization that provided or supported abortion.
Although IPPF did not directly promote abortion, some of its affiliates provided abortion services in countries where it was legal. IPPF refused to bow to American pressure and lost $17 million in funding.
— FPAIndia (@FPA_India) July 23, 2017
“Job Came to Me”
Avabai believed strongly in freedom of choice and that taxation would never lead to healthy family planning.
In 2000, when the Maharashtra government discussed implementing a two-child policy by not providing rations and free primary education to the third child, Avabai said, “We cannot support rules that deny basic human rights. Nothing can be achieved by discouraging or disappointing people.
A few years before his death, MS Swaminathan, the scientist who led the country’s green revolution that helped India achieve food security, said: “More than anyone, [Avabai] knew that if our population policies go wrong, nothing else will have a chance to go right.
Realizing how intertwined family planning was with law and policy, Avabai became one of the main architects of the family planning movement in India.
“It seems like my life’s work presented itself to me rather than consciously seeking it. I didn’t find it pointless not to pursue a legal career, because the law was a strengthening element in everything I did,” she told herself.
Avabai died in 2005.
Edited by Divya Sethu