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Avabai Wadia
Lawyer who was a founder of the International Planned Parenthood Federation
Paul Bell
Thursday August 11 2005
The Guardian (London & Manchester)

Avabai Wadia, who has died aged 91, was a guiding light and pioneer of the sexual and reproductive health and family planning movement. She fought for gender equality and reproductive rights in India - and across the globe.

Wadia was firmly convinced of family planning's role in improving the lives of women: it provided, "a means of helping women to get out of the trap of biological compulsion and of societal pressures for frequent childbearing which could ruin their health, cause neglect of their children, impoverish families and keep women tied to procreation." Throughout, she recognised that family planning could be successful only if it was voluntary and done through informed choice.

Wadia was born into a well-respected Parsee family in colonial Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Her father was a high ranking official in a shipping company; her mother was a strong, independent spirit with a passion for learning.

In 1928, aged 15, Wadia accompanied her mother to England, where they were reunited with her brother Phirozeshah, then studying at Cambridge. She attended Brondesbury and Kilburn high school in London.

Having decided as a child that she wanted to be a lawyer, Wadia began attending the Inns of Court, becoming, at the age of 19, the first woman from Ceylon to pass her bar exams. She was called to the bar in 1934, and, although she found work experience in a solicitors' firm easily, getting a place in chambers proved much more elusive. Not many would accept a woman into a legal firm, and she faced rejection on many occasions.

At this time, Wadia made contact with a circle of British women's organisations. Involvement with the British Commonwealth League and the International Alliance of Women gave her access to a cross-section of British society including many prominent social reformers. With a background of agitation for dominion status, later independence, for India, it also led to meetings with Gandhi, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder, and Jawaharlal Nehru, all in London for talks with the British government.

After departing for India in 1939, Wadia spent a month in Bombay before moving to Ceylon, where, once enrolled at the supreme court in Colombo, she started to practise law with a Parsee advocate. She also took up voluntary work again, with groups such as the Women's Political Union and All India Women's Conference. Wadia returned permanently to Bombay in 1941, almost immediately meeting her future husband, Dr Bomanji Wadia. They married in 1946.

Her continued work with the All India Women's Conference brought Wadia into contact with family planning advocates, sparking her interest in reproductive health and rights and her central role in establishing in 1949 the Family Planning Association of India (FPAI), of which she was president for 34 years. Throwing herself whole-heartedly into this new area of work, she became something of an unofficial historian of family planning, and she was instrumental in ensuring the inclusion of family planning in India's first five-year plan.

In early 1952 she returned to London to recuperate after a miscarriage. However, six months later she was back in Bombay leading the effort to organise the Third International Conference on Planned Parenthood, which brought together the eight existing family planning associations and was attended by two luminaries of the family planning world, Margaret Sanger and Elise Ottesen-Jensen.

On the final day of the conference, the delegates were to vote on forming an international federation. It was unanimously passed and the delegates voted the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) into existence.

From 1952 onwards, Wadia guided the work of IPPF in London, establishing worldwide regional offices, expanding its work to include many more countries, forming autonomous family planning associations under the umbrella of the federation and raising funds for its work. Under her care, the federation became the first non-governmental organisation to be awarded the UN population award in 1985 and the $100,000 third world prize in 1987. She was its president for two terms in the 1980s.

Her husband predeceased her.

Avabai Bomanji Wadia, lawyer and family planning activist, born September 18 1913; died July 11 2005

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