03/08/2013 06:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dr. Nafis Sadik, 'Champion of Choice,' Talks Women's Rights

Dr. Nafis Sadik, the first female head of a major United Nations program (UN Population Fund 1987-2000), is the subject of a new biography, Champion of Choice (Cathleen Miller, University of Nebraska Press, March 2013). The biography follows Sadik's life from her birth in India through medical school in Pakistan and a storied career that includes brokering a twenty-year agreement on women's reproductive rights at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo that was signed by 179 governments ranging from China to Vatican City.

When Dr. Sadik took a post at the fledgling United Nations Population Fund in 1971, the average global birthrate equaled six children per mother. By the time of her retirement in 2000, the average birthrate had been cut in half. Her strategy was simple, but groundbreaking: provide females with education and the tools to control their own fertility.

nafis sadik

Sadik, who the London Times has referred to as, "One of the most powerful women in the world," is currently 83 and continues to travel as special envoy of the UN Secretary-General for HIV/AIDS in Asia. She spoke via telephone about her life and work in honor of International Women's Day.

The first March 8th International Women's Day was celebrated in 1913. This March 8th we mark the date's 100th anniversary. What are some advances that you single out in particular for women's rights over the last century, and what areas still need progress?

In terms of advancement in the rights of women, we can look at the Declaration of Women's Rights from the UN World Conference which most of the governments of the world have approved. Since 1975 we have had a conference every ten years on the rights of women--1995 in Beijing, and 2005 in New York. These are important landmarks--increasing access to education, job opportunities, et cetera.

As far as areas that still need progress, there is still the situation of children who don't have access to education, particularly in certain countries where the boys will get education, but girls must marry for economic opportunities. Also, of course, the right to choose--the right of women to choose whether they will get pregnant or not, the right to education in sexuality and reproductive matters. We've made enormous progress in certain matters, but there's still a long way to go, especially with violence against women, rape, incest. We have to be sure that our achievements are not lost, especially in the area of reproductive health.

You served as Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund from 1987-2000. What were the most important advances, and what were the challenges?

When I became Executive Director of that program, the first question all the press asked was, what was it like to be head of the organization as a woman? I wanted to say, well, I've never been a man, so I can't tell you...I did feel very comfortable in my position. I had many ideas, and I had the platform to use them, which I did. I had access to heads of government and could discuss issues that were very important to women in their countries--especially sexual health and reproductive planning that other women could not address. I definitely used that opportunity.

The London Times has called you "one of the most powerful women in the world," yet in an interview with PRB Radio, you credited a few important men--specifically your father, husband, and other mentors, as critical to your success. Can you talk a little about men's role in the movement for women's rights?

Men's role in attaining women's rights is extremely important. I know that from my personal experience. Even in the developed world, men in particular are extremely important. I mentioned my father and husband, but also many men were instrumental in furthering my career. In Pakistan, they recognized my work and gave me opportunities, and of course that happened in the U.S. I'm very grateful to Rafael Salas who as head of the UN Population Fund had a great influence and was a big factor in my advancement. Many women in other parts of the world may not have had the same advantages. I talk to many women's groups, about women's rights--and about rights for men too, not just for women. Gender issues must involve both men and women. We seem to be only thinking about women, but women need to involve men and also men themselves must get involved in women's rights in terms of both structure and concepts.

You are the subject of a just-released biography, Champion of Choice, by Cathleen Miller. What was it like to be the subject of such an in-depth account , and what would you like people to take from your life story?

I want people to understand that many things have happened in a relatively quick period of time, and I hope people will understand the changes in my life coincided with changes in the world. [Cathleen Miller] has been writing my biography for a long time, and has done a fantastic job. She captured a lot in the book. I like her choice of title, ["Champion of Choice"] because I know that that the word "choice" has connotations in the U.S. in particular, but for me, it was the choice that I wanted to fight for--for women to have the opportunity to choose their own lives, their opportunities, careers, paths that were often denied, and lost to so many women in the world.

I hope you take away from my story that women have the opportunity to make a difference. You have to find what you are committed to and stick to that commitment. You have to have the courage to defend it and promote it--not so easy to do sometimes, but you have to do it. Be committed, creative, speak up, and speak out.