Thursday September 01, 2022

An exceptional leader

An exceptional leader

Dr. Nafis Sadik

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed his sadness over the death on Aug.14, her country Pakistan’s National Day, of pioneering UN official Dr. Nafis Sadik, 92, at her home in New York City.

She was the first woman to head one of the UN’s major programmes, the UN Population Fund

(UNFPA) where she promoted the need to address women’s rights and requirements when designing development policy. She assumed this post between 1987-2000 after serving as the secretary general’s adviser and envoy for combating HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific. Natalia Kanem, the fund’s current director, hailed Sadik as a “proud champion of choice and tireless advocate for women’s health, rights and empowerment.”

Sadik was born into a distinguished family in August 1929 in Jaunpur during the British Raj.

As her hometown was in Indian state of Uttar Pradesh after partition, the family relocated to Pakistan, dividing her life into pre-partition and post-partition phases.

Sadik was educated at the Loreto College, Calcutta, India, and received a doctor of medicine degree from Dow Medical College, Karachi, Pakistan. She served an internship in gynaecology and obstetrics at City Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland in the US.

At an early age, Sadik was sensitised to the situation of women. Her grandmother died giving birth to her mother Iffat Ara, according to “Champion of Choice,” a 2013 biography of Sadik by Cathleen Miller, cited by The New York Times.

As a girl Nefis Shoaib dreamed of becoming a tennis professional, a singer, or an engineer but understood her vocation was to do something to help the millions of poor who are omnipresent in Pakistan and India. Although she did not know how she would meet this challenge, she told Miller, she wanted “to do something [to] change the world.”

Like many young educated upper- and middle-class Pakistani and Indian girls of the independence generation, she did not make her life’s ultimate goal marriage and children but aimed to shoulder the responsibilities of nation-building. While her mother urged her to marry and be satisfied with a traditional woman’s role, Nafis argued she wanted to have “two lives” as a wife and mother and a career woman with a mission. She succeeded.

She clearly inherited her father Muhammed Shoaib’s determination to be of service to the new country of Pakistan. An economist, he served two terms as finance minister under President Ayub Khan.

He opposed the construction of a nuclear power plant, delaying the project, but after failing to get it scrapped, he stepped down as minister. He switched to the World Bank where he remained for two decades after serving as vice president.

In 1954, she wed Azhar Sadik, a Pakistani army officer based in Washington, and completed her residency in obstetrics at City Hospital in Baltimore. When she returned to Pakistan, where her husband was sent to the Abbottabad military base, she began by treating the wives of soldiers as well as women in rural villages reachable only by jeep. During her time in the field, she was appalled by the harsh conditions, particularly for women who risked death to give birth to multiple children who dwelled in squalor and want without the possibility of education and a decent, dignified future.

She created her own post as a civilian medical officer in charge of women’s and children’s wards in Pakistani armed forces hospitals. After acing courses in public health at Johns Hopkins University she was chosen to head of Pakistan’s Central Family Planning Council.

She joined the UN population fund in 1971 and became its director in 1987. At that time the agency had a staff of 800 and budget of $300 million. Its job was to convince governments to raise the status of women through legislation and education at a time their efforts were swamped by population growth.

Sadiq was appointed secretary-general of the International Conference on Population and

Development which convened in Cairo in mid-September 1994. Twenty-thousand delegates from governments, UN agencies, civil society organisations, and the media met to discuss immigration, infant mortality, birth control, family planning, and women’s education and reproductive health. These topics remain as relevant today as they did 28 years ago.

The goals of the conference were to achieve universal education by 2015, reduction of infant and maternal mortality, and providing access to family planning, pre-natal care, and treatment of ailments, including infertility and ovarian and breast cancer. By the end of the week, 179 governments had signed a plan of action to tackle population growth and promote sustainable development over 20 years.

“Healthy families are created by choice, not by chance,” Sadik observed after the document was signed. Unfortunately, many if not most of the governments did not honour their signatures. Global population has swelled from 5.6 billion in 1994 to 8 billion in 2022.

She argued that governments had adopted flawed measures to curb surging population growth.

Single child families and punishments adopted by China and inducements used by India did not work in the two most populous countries on the planet.

In a 2000 interview with the New York Times, Sadik said that when she joined the fund in the seventies, family planning in emerging countries largely focused on urging poor women to have fewer babies in line with government quotas.

“The world has come very far since then,” she said, pointing out that quotas had been dropped along with the term “population control.”

Sadik adopted a holistic approach to the environment and development, combining demographics with health, education and human rights. “You can’t deal with population and environmental issues until you deal with the individual issues of women,” she told the Houston Chronicle.

In retirement, she continued her crusade on boards of directors and advisory panels of non-profit organisations and research institutions dealing with population growth.

For her years of service, she received awards from the US Planned Parenthood Federation, the UN, the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the US Public Health Association, and the US National Wildlife Association.

Despite her years of dedication to her cause, Sadik did not quite practice what she preached.

She gave birth to five children, a daughter who predeceased her, three siblings who live in the US and one in Pakistan.  She had 10 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

Photo: AP

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