Tribute to Avabai Wadia

Alexander Sanger with Avabai Wadia

Alexander Sanger, Avabai Wadia, and Prime Minister I. K. Gujral, shaking hands

Avabai Wadia, a distinguished leader of the IPPF, died July 11, 2005 at the age of 91. She didn’t seem that old. She had, like her friend and my grandmother, Margaret Sanger, a countenance made youthful by her lifetime of devotion to the great cause we all work for. Her zest for our cause was with her until the very end. In 1998, I traveled to Bombay (now Mumbai) to deliver a speech to the FPAI. Avabai was gracious enough to introduce me to the audience and to remark that I was a much better speaker than my grandmother was! I don’t know if I won over the audience, but her flattery won me over.

Avabai Wadia and Margaret Sanger

Avabai Wadia and Margaret Sanger

In 2002 I traveled to New Delhi to take part in the 50th anniversary celebration of the IPPF, and spent three days in her company. As is the IPPF’s wont, we spent three days in windowless, airless, sunless hotel meeting rooms discussing and debating important matters, with nary a break to enjoy the sun and pleasures of northern India. Our meetings took Avabai back to the days in 1952 when she helped organize the meeting in Bombay which founded the IPPF and to the Sixth International Conference on Planned Parenthood in New Delhi in 1959 which she almost single-handedly organized. When she caught me looking wistfully at the sun shining on the verdant lawns outside and reflecting off the cool rippling swimming pool, she nudged me and said, “There will be time enough for that.” She was all business, and her business was Planned Parenthood.

She trained as a lawyer in London and continued her practice even after she became the President of FPAI in the 1950’s and then of the IPPF in the 1970’s. She broke ground as a female attorney in Ceylon and India, and, though she rose to the highest levels in Indian society, she never forgot the women who were not as fortunate as she was. Fighting on their behalf, she, like my grandmother, had to overcome “ridicule, vilification, or, what is almost worse, public apathy.”

She once described my grandmother: “It is that unknown and unknowable quality in the human spirit which leads certain individuals through tribulation, physical, and even more mental, towards a distant light, having to make hard and self-sacrificing decisions, over and over again, having to contend with self-doubts and fears which crop up in any creative undertaking.”

Avabai Wadia and Margaret Sanger belonged to this small group of individuals who have had this struggle. Fortunately, they both kept their youthful enthusiasm for the cause until the end.

Avabai once said of my grandmother, what I now say about her, that “in her trail-blazing she had opened up a new understanding of life and family living, which, spreading world-wide, could lead to a truer valuation of human worth and peaceful progress.”

The IPPF and the world are in her debt.

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