Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

December 13, 2006:

Anika Rahman ’87

Anika Rahman ’87 is pressing the White House to release funds appropriated by Congress for UNFPA. (Courtesy Americans for UNFPA)


Anika 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 against women.

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 family planning.

“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. P

By K.F.G.