Rahman ’87 is pressing the White House to release funds
appropriated by Congress for UNFPA. (Courtesy Americans for
Rahman ’87 Empowering poor women
When Anika Rahman ’87, a native of Bangladesh, was an undergraduate
at Princeton, she found that many students weren’t aware of
the crushing poverty and issues of social injustice that disadvantaged
people in Third World countries faced.
“A group of very smart, open-minded people did not know
about these things,” says Rahman, a Woodrow Wilson School
major who wrote her senior thesis on food aid. “I realized
there was a need to bridge that gap.” So she founded the Princeton
International Development Organization, which organized lecture
series and fundraising drives to support economic development projects
in countries such as Bangladesh and India.
Some 20 years later, Rahman continues to do what she started at
Princeton — raising political and moral awareness and funds
for disadvantaged people around the globe.
As president of the New York-based Americans for United Nations
Population Fund, Rahman is an advocate for the work of the United
Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), an international women’s
health agency operating in more than 140 countries that provides
women’s health care and promotes women’s rights. The
agency aims to provide safe contraceptive methods, decrease maternal
deaths, improve maternal health, reduce HIV/AIDS infections, and
promote better access to education and the prevention of violence
If women could plan their pregnancies, survive childbirth, and
attain the same education and status as men, they would be more
likely to contribute to the economic and political well-being of
their countries, she says.
UNFPA also addresses women’s health problems that reflect
some societies’ low regard for women, including sexual violence,
female genital mutilation, and obstetric fistula. Some 2 million
women and girls suffer from obstetric fistula, which occurs when
the wall between the rectum and vagina collapses after childbirth,
causing the individual to leak feces and urine. One contributing
factor of fistula, says Rahman, is pregnancy in girls as young as
12, whose bodies are not strong enough for pregnancy and labor.
They can become social outcasts because they can’t control
their excremental functions and their husbands may leave them. The
condition costs only $300 to repair, says Rahman, but prevention
is more difficult and involves eliminating early marriage and encouraging
“My goal is to get people to reconceptualize women and to
see them in a much broader capacity” beyond their role as
child-bearer, says Rahman, who co-wrote a book, Female Genital Mutilation:
A Practical Guide to Worldwide Laws and Policies (2000).
Another of her goals is to convince the White House to stop blocking
funds that Congress has appropriated for UNFPA. For each of the
past five years Congress has appropriated up to $34 million for
UNFPA, but the Bush administration has frozen the money, contending
that the organization is involved in coercive sterilization and
abortion in China. UNFPA denies that assertion. “If these
issues can ever become slightly less politicized, and you can actually
look at the facts and put women first, things will turn around and
our government would support UNFPA,” Rahman says.