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Champion of Choice Book Launch in New York City
Decades before Sheryl Sanberg told women to "lean in" or Anne-Marie Slaughter explained why women still can’t have it all, a Muslim mother of five broke through the glass ceiling at the United Nations.
As the former executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Dr. Nafis Sadik became the first woman to head one of the United Nations’ major voluntarily-funded programs. Now, she is the subject of Champion of Choice, a new biography by Cathleen Miller that chronicles her lifelong dedication to improving the lives of women worldwide, including her leading role in building support for the Cairo Programme of Action.
Last week, Regional Director Carmen Barroso sat down for a lively conversation with Miller and Sadik at a book launch co-hosted by IPPF/WHR, UNFPA, and Friends of UNFPA at the Ford Foundation. The eleventh floor room was beautiful, and had a dramatic view of the New York skyline. As it filled with leading women’s rights advocates, UN employees from the past and present, and Sadik’s family and friends, I met the guest of honor. Nafis Sadik was warm, honest, brilliant, funny, and lively in a bright turquoise sari.
It’s nearly impossible to work in international sexual and reproductive health and rights without knowing that in 1994, 179 governments agreed to a Programme of Action in Cairo that positioned the human rights and health of women and girls at the center of global development policies. What I didn’t grasp, until attending the launch, was the extent and depth of the negotiations involved in brokering this historic agreement. For one, there was Nafis’ infamous meeting with Pope John Paul II prior to the Cairo negotiations, where she fearlessly pressed for the Holy See’s support on access to contraception, safe abortion, and women’s rights.
But what stood out to Sadik the most nearly 20 years after the Programme of Action was adopted was the role of feminists and civil society played in forging the Cairo consensus. Nafis acknowledged how Carmen Barroso, then director of the Population and Reproductive Health Program at the MacArthur Foundation, supported the voices of civil society by insisting they have a seat at the policy table. She talked about the ways the women’s rights movement shifted the development paradigm to take into account the evolving needs of women throughout their lifetimes.
Looking around the room as Nafis spoke, it was clear there was a yearning for this type of revolutionary thinking and action today to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights, and ensure a world of justice, peace, and prosperity. During the audience question and answer session, one man raised his hand to ask if Nafis would consider returning to Pakistan and running for office. She laughed, but I knew that for a woman like her, it wasn’t completely out of the question.
As the event ended and people said their long goodbyes, I marveled that nearly fifty years after the publication of Betty Frieden’s Feminine Mystique we had been wrong all this time—women could truly have it all.