India was the first country in the world to launch a national family planning program in 1952. The stories coming from the rest of the world to understand Planned Parenthood as the need not only of women but also of the nation and taking official steps in this direction are heartbreaking. America, which held the title of the most developed nation in the world, imprisoned Margaret Sanger, the woman who started Planned Parenthood in her country. Women in Europe had to fight for 20 years for their country’s governments to grant them basic constitutional rights such as contraception and abortion. But the history of India is different from them.
India is one of the few countries in the world where women did not have to fight as hard as the West for these basic rights. But not that anyone fought for this right in India.
There was a Parsi woman. Lawyer by profession and social worker by nature. The name was Avabai Bomanji Wadia. In 1949, two years after independence, she founded India’s first organization, the Family Planning Association of India, to work for family planning and planned parenthood. She was also one of the founders of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which was started in 1952.
The first years of Awabai’s life
Awabai was born on September 18, 1913, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, into a prosperous, English-speaking family. The family’s roots were in India, but due to work needs, the family settled in Sri Lanka. Father Dorabji Muncherji Wadia was a successful shipping officer and mother Firozabai Arshiwala Mehta was a housewife. Awabai’s early studies took place in Colombo, but at the age of 15 she was sent to England for further studies.
After studying law in England, Awabai learned that women do not practice in Sri Lanka. Even women were not admitted to law colleges in Sri Lanka. In 1933, aged just 19, when she passed her law exam with honors in England, she made headlines in Sri Lankan newspapers. It was only after this that the Sri Lankan government opened the doors of its country’s law schools to women.
when no one was willing to give them work
Awabai had passed the law exam with top marks, but no law firm in England was willing to employ him. The reason was his political activism and his outspokenness. From her college days, she became a member of organizations such as the Commonwealth Countries League and the International Women’s Alliance.
For his participation in the procession-demonstration in the street every day, his name would be published in the next day’s newspapers. If a political meeting had been held in Hyde Park, London, I would have left class and gone there. Many times he also gave speeches on stage. Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, whoever went to London, Awabai would be at the forefront of meeting them. In England, their image had become that of people who fought for the freedom of their country and the rights of women.
When unable to find work, he practiced independently at the High Court in London for a year. He then returned to Colombo in 1939 and practiced for two years in the Supreme Court of Colombo.
the family returns to India
After retirement in 1941, the father decided to return to his homeland. They returned to India and started living in Bombay. It was here that Awabai met Bomanji Khurshidji Wadia and the two married in 1946. As with most free-hearted women, they do not fit into the traditional framework of marriage. Awabai was not only politically active but also a feminist. She was friends with Margaret Sanger, a girl who read feminist books from all over the world, who from the age of 17 was part of an organization like the International Alliance of Women. Margaret, who fought for basic women’s rights such as contraception and family planning in the United States.
Bomanji Wadia wanted an English-speaking, modern, western woman, but in the mass meeting, the issue of women’s right to abortion and contraceptives will not be disturbed. Their marriage lasted only three years. When her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage in 1952, she too had no reason to stay with her husband. Although they never divorced.
Feminist questions from feminist Awabai
Today, even in 2022, we hesitate to say words like abortion, contraception in public. Awabai was speaking in all these public forums and public meetings when half the population of this country was in the dark of illiteracy and plight. At the call of Gandhi-Nehru-Patel, women had walked with the flag in the freedom struggle, but they had never asked what we would get from that freedom. Where are our rights and freedoms?
At the time barely 3% of women had an education. Women had no share in the father’s property. Women had no say in basic life decisions such as marriage, children, divorce. The proportion of employed women was less than 6%. There were demands for gender equality in the Constitution, but the destiny of turning this demand into a substantive reality was still far away.
Awabai Wadia believed that when and how many children a woman would have, was her right. Women should have this freedom and facility through the law to make decisions related to motherhood.
Inclusion of family planning in the first five-year plan of independent India
After her father’s death, Avabai inherited a lot of property. But he gave three-quarters of that legacy to the women of this country. In 1949, he founded the Family Planning Association of India (FPAI) with this money and became its first president. For two years, this organization traveled the country, holding meetings, collaborating with women’s organizations, social organizations and political parties to spread the issue of family planning.
Meanwhile, Awabai used to meet India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as well. He still remembered the 17-year-old girl from his days in London, who used to visit him. Who used to give speeches at Hyde Park meetings. Who used to ask many questions to Nehru and Gandhi but whose questions were not limited to the independence of the country only. Among their questions was also this question: “What will you do for the women of the free country?”
It was the result of Awabai’s hard work and constant struggle that in 1951, when the Nehru government announced the first five-year plan, one more thing was added along with agriculture, industry, l ‘education and health: family planning. In this way, India became the first country in the world to officially implement family planning in 1951.
What Awabai’s struggle had made possible in India, Margaret Sanger was still fighting for it in America. The result of their struggle was that the first Planned Parenthood Center in America was started, but it was not yet included in the government plans.
The credit for this achievement of India goes to Awabai and Jawaharlal Nehru, who in his basic thinking and vision was modern and championed the rights and equality of women. During Nehru’s regime one law after another was made, which laid the foundation for women’s empowerment in this country. Notable among them are the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, the Hindu Succession (Probate) Act, 1956 and the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, the Special Marriage Act, 1954 and the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961.
3rd Planned Parenthood International Conference in India
In 1952, a year after the implementation of the first five-year plan with the support of the Nehru government, Awabai organized the Third International Conference on Planned Parenthood in India. Margaret Sanger then came to India to participate in this conference. Also from Norway came Agile Autesson Jansen, who fought for sex education, protection and women’s rights in his country.
The conference was covered in newspapers around the world. It was surprising to the world that the country which only five years ago emerged from the darkness of two hundred years of slavery, was making such a rapid step towards modernity.
The legacy of Awabai
Awabai, who left the world in 2005 at the age of 91, dedicated her whole life to the work she believed in: women should be given the same human status as men in society, they should to have the right to their lives, their bodies, They should have the right to education, health, work and property.
Avabai has written more than 10 books on these topics. Apart from his many books on family planning, he has a book called Some Careers for Women. Another very beautiful book of his is called: “The light will belong to us”. A memoir was published in 2001: “Light is hours”. Along with his life journey, this book also provides an insight into the path of socio-political development at that time.