Speech

Remarks by Dr. Natalia Kanem at condolence meeting for Dr. Nafis Sadik

26 August 2022

Your Excellency Mr. Munir Akram,

Ambereen and members of the Sadik family,

Dear friends,

We gather today to pay homage to an incomparable woman – a proud daughter of Pakistan whose reach spanned the globe, and whose extraordinary life and legacy is an enduring gift to humanity.

Dr. Nafis Sadik contained multitudes.

She was a bold and visionary leader with a clear agenda that set the world on an ambitious path that has transformed the lives of millions of women and girls.

A woman of science, who employed facts and evidence to influence policy and practice and to build consensus.

A loving wife and devoted mother.

A caring mentor, who empowered, encouraged and showed genuine support, particularly to younger members of her team, often invited to share a table with the family. 

A trailblazer who through her example demonstrated the transformative power of women’s leadership and paved the way for so many of us within the United Nations and beyond. She was a woman of many firsts at a time when that counted. She was indeed the first woman to sit around the circle of Chief Executives of United Nations Funds and Programmes, and she certainly made her mark.

Dr. Nafis exemplified a profile in courage, unafraid of speaking truth to power. A brilliant strategist, she helped break powerful taboos around issues that made many people – particularly politicians – uncomfortable. Sexuality, reproductive health, gender, female genital mutilation, violence against women – these were not typical agenda items in intergovernmental fora.

Yet, she knew we needed to speak about them, because she understood how central this was to advancing women’s rights, gender equality, justice, and sustainable development.

And so, she told it like it is, challenging conventional wisdom and interrogating cultural norms.

In her words:

"What culture worth the name would deny women the right to safe motherhood? What value system would send young people ignorant into the world, when a little knowledge might save their lives?”

Dr. Nafis was ahead of the curve in understanding that population is not a numbers game; it’s about people, and their individual rights and choices. And through her powers of persuasion, her fierce determination and unstinting advocacy, the world came to understand that as well.

 A tireless and tenacious champion of the reproductive health and rights of women and girls, she never gave up fighting, never wavered, despite fierce opposition and challenges. She stood her ground for what was right, and she demanded that same commitment and tenacity from everyone around her, too. That determination continues to inspire all of us at UNFPA. 

I myself, as a young doctor in the early stages of my career in philanthropy, was present in Cairo in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development. I vividly recall the idealism and our sense of purpose, of being witness to something extraordinary. Dr. Nafis’s passion, diplomatic skills and eloquence, which led to the groundbreaking Programme of Action, were unrivaled. I’ve seen few people before or since who could command the attention of a room the way she did. We watched in awe. And we recall with pride and satisfaction that her appearance, years after exiting the UN spotlight, was enough to bring an audience enthusiastically to its feet.

We also saw that she was practical. Rhetoric is great, but one has to deliver, to make an impact. That pragmatism made a powerful impression. It was inspiring to all of us who saw her in action as the Executive Director of UNFPA

Going forward, we hope to mirror the same.

Our deepest condolences to Ambereen, Omar, Wafa, Ghazala and the extended family. For UNFPA and the United Nations, I can state that the global movement for reproductive health and rights that your mother inspired bettered the lives of millions of women and girls. We mourn with you and, moreover, we celebrate with you — and all who knew and loved her in Pakistan, in the region, and around the world.

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un.

Her light may have left this world, however, the torch she lit burns ever bright. I assure you that UNFPA will continue to honour the memory of Dr. Nafis Sadik and uphold her unparalleled legacy in the best way we know – by emulating her in standing up for the rights, dignity and well-being of every woman, every girl and every young person everywhere, as we march on to make full rights and choices real in their lives.

May her beautiful soul rest in perpetual peace, Amen.

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