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Champion of Choice

The Life and Legacy of Women's Advocate Nafis Sadik

Cathleen Miller

Publication Year: 2013

Not many women can claim to have changed history, but Nafis Sadik set that goal in her youth, and change the world she did. Champion of Choice tells the remarkable story of how Sadik, born into a prominent Indian family in 1929, came to be the world’s foremost advocate for women’s health and reproductive rights, the first female director of a United Nations agency, and “one of the most powerful women in the world” (London Times).

An obstetrician, wife, mother, and devout Muslim, Sadik has been a courageous and tireless advocate for women, insisting on discussing the difficult issues that impact their lives: education, contraception, abortion, as well as rape and other forms of violence. After Sadik joined the fledgling UN Population Fund in 1971, her groundbreaking strategy for providing females with education and the tools to control their own fertility has dramatically influenced the global birthrate. This book is the first to examine Sadik’s contribution to history and the unconventional methods she has employed to go head-to-head with world leaders to improve millions of women’s lives.

Interspersed between the chapters recounting Sadik’s life are vignettes of females around the globe who represent her campaign against domestic abuse, child marriage, genital mutilation, and other human rights violations. With its insights into the political, religious, and domestic battles that have dominated women’s destinies, Sadik’s life story is as inspirational as it is dramatic.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Praise, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-9


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pp. vii-11

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

The first time I ever saw Nafis Sadik, I had the same reaction countless others have probably had: who on earth is that woman? I was in Manhattan working on Desert Flower when I noticed this older Pakistani lady, around sixty; she stood at the front of the room at a United Nations reception wearing a colorful blue print sari, its fabric draped gracefully over one...

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1 Birth

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pp. 1-20

On a table, in the lantern light, a mother writhed in labor. She was an Indian housewife in her thirties, and she was surrounded by other women, some relatives, some strangers, who tried to assist in the birth of her baby. As she strained, the helpers crushed into the room in the oppressive August...

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2 Welcoming the Girls

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pp. 21-41

We have all questioned the luck of the draw that shapes our destiny, examining how fate favors one girl born into a wealthy family that gives her every opportunity versus another girl who comes into this world as chattel to be traded for cattle. Although there are as many theories for shaping personality as there are philosophies and religions— from karma to reincarnation...

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3 Azhar

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pp. 42-59

One theory of soul mates says that at some point in their lives they will both be in the same place at the same time—before they meet. And so it was with Nafis and her future husband, Azhar Sadik. He grew up in Lahore, and she in Calcutta, a thousand miles apart. But during the summer that the medical...

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4 Karachi

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pp. 60-82

Even the bureaucrats charged with locating lodging had none. A tent village housed six hundred government clerks and messenger boys, who shared their camp with meandering livestock, the animals’ pungent fragrance hanging in the sultry heat like a suffocating cloud. Pakistan was now home to six million impoverished Muslim refugees who had emigrated during...

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5 The Wedding

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pp. 83-103

While Captain Azhar Sadik was conspiring with his relatives to present a marriage proposal, he had no idea if Nafis would accept it. They had never discussed the topic because matrimonial agreements in their culture were made from family to family; for a man to propose to his beloved and then later...

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6 Doctor’s Orders

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pp. 104-121

When she was a girl, Nafis had dreamed of becoming a doctor, of doing something “to help the poor.” But like most childhood dreams, while hers provided a beacon on the horizon, the details were fuzzy. Now, after years of preparation, she had indeed returned home to help her people. After the final hurrah of matrimonial celebrations died down in Karachi, the newlyweds boarded...

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7 Mothers

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pp. 122-137

Mothers and daughters possess a unique connection—perhaps because they understand their shared pain and joy, the knowledge that giving birth will produce both, and the poignant reality that they are forever intertwined: one creates the other. The mother becomes one through the birth of her child, and the child cannot exist without the mother. So it is with...

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8 Family Planning

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pp. 138-165

Always in motion, the Sadiks would soon be separated again. When Azhar completed his coursework at the academy in Kingston in 1958, he returned from Canada alone, reporting to his new post in military intelligence at army headquarters in Rawalpindi. Meanwhile Nafis stayed behind to help her father cope with her now motherless baby brother, Tariq. She also utilized...

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9 The UN

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pp. 166-196

The ever-bold Nafis’s name became internationally known as she charged forward with her work at the Pakistani Family Planning Commission. Her aggressive management style incorporated the spirit of community building, a technique that would become a trademark throughout the doctor’s long tenure...

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10 The Director

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pp. 197-248

As the gestation of her career advanced, Dr. Sadik was required to birth more than babies. She had arrived at unfpa in October 1971, and in 1972 Executive Director Rafael Salas sent his new technical adviser to Yugoslavia with the dictum to raise capital. He was eager for Eastern Europe to support h....

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11 The Vatican

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pp. 24-294

Hailing from 179 governments, thousands of women organized and prepared to fight as they shipped off to Cairo in 1994. In countries around the planet they had held strategy meetings, talked on the phone, met for lunch, and hosted fund-raisers. Then they simultaneously packed their suitcases with...

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12 Cairo

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pp. 295-345

Over the course of the coming week, dignitaries from around the globe will be arriving for the International Conference on Population and Development, their limos gliding down a grand circular drive lined by palm trees and a colorful cornucopia of national flags. They will stop at the vip entrance to the...

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13 Beijing

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pp. 346-378

Once again, the location of the conference was significant. Nafis joined the sisterhood as they landed in the volcanic center of a controversy raging around the rights of Chinese women to control what went on in their own wombs. As news leaked out from beneath the Red Curtain—details of population quotas and targets, extortion rackets by enforcers of government...

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14 Back Home

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pp. 379-410

To breed or not to breed: that is the question. But it is a question that females have seldom bothered to ask throughout history, because they had no control over the answer. In the 1940s two women set out to change that: Margaret Sanger and Katherine McCormick. Sanger, who watched her mother...

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15 On The Ground

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pp. 411-436

An angry Nafis Sadik shouted, “There is still a war going on against women in this country!” She had arrived in Kosovo that winter with a military escort to see the situation on the ground for herself, and found that it was even worse than she’d feared. While aid money poured into the region, rebuilding factories and paving roads, she discovered the primary maternity...

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16 Onward

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pp. 437-463

Nafis Sadik had learned to cope with the wranglings over donor funding, the political battles, and the moral dilemmas that all accompanied her advocacy for women’s health. In spite of the challenges from the Vatican, and the flip-flopping of the Americans, she knew that unfpa was making...

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pp. 464-503

In 2011 Nafis lost her husband of fifty-seven years when Azhar passed away. At eighty-two, she continues to circle the globe as un Secretary- General Ban Ki-Moon’s special envoy on hiv/aids for Asia, and she remains a champion...

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pp. 465-466

Many midwives helped to deliver this book into being. First off, I’d like to express my gratitude to Nafis Sadik for making herself available for countless hours of interviews and follow-up questions and for connecting me with her friends, colleagues, and family; I would like to offer special thanks...

Notes and Sources

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pp. 467-478


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pp. 479-496

E-ISBN-13: 9780803246836
E-ISBN-10: 0803246838
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803211049

Page Count: 512
Illustrations: 28 illustrations
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Sadik, Nafis.
  • Women social reformers -- Pakistan -- Biography.
  • Women physicians -- Pakistan -- Biography.
  • Family planning -- Developing countries.
  • Reproductive rights -- Developing countries.
  • Women's health services -- Developing countries.
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