A pioneer to remember

A pioneer to remember

She wanted to contribute to nation-building and soon identified her space

The Third International Conference, Bombay, 1952 held by Family Planning Association India. Dhanvanthi Rama Rau is be seen seated next to former President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, the brain behind family planning programmes in India, has remained quite unknown in the Kannada speaking world; a world of her roots.

Born in 1893 in a Kashmiri Brahmin family in Hubballi, Dhanvanthi Rama Rau was the first Indian woman to teach at a higher education platform, when she joined Queen Mary’s College.

After having completed her primary education in Hubballi, she did her higher education at Madras Presidency College, where she met her future husband Benegal Rama Rau. A Kannadiga from Benegal, a village in Udupi district, Rau was the long-serving Governor of the Reserve Bank of India.

Later, Dhanvanthi travelled to England with her husband, who was part of the visiting Simon Commission. In England, on instructions from Sarojini Naidu, she worked for several organisations campaigning for India’s freedom. As a member of the Indian delegation to the International Women’s forum, she fought for voting rights and equal citizenship for women. She went on to found an association for Indian women with an objective to connect Indian and British women on empowerment issues.

As India inched towards its freedom, Dhanvanthi moved back to the country. She wanted to contribute to nation-building and soon identified her space. The Great Bengal Famine showed her the growing economic inequality and high reproduction rate among the poor. Population growth leads to a lack of resources and this negatively affects the development of women. There was a connection between birth control and women empowerment and Dhanvanthi, who knew this, came to conclude that birth control is the solution to most of the problems that people face. She believed that the decision on the number of children and on when to conceive should be with women. If the right to reproduction lies with women, she understood, birth control would be easier.

Dhanvanthi was up against a big challenge which included educating the ignorant people who belonged to a society that believed that birth control was against God’s wish. Moreover, Mahatma Gandhi, who was aware of the need for population control, was against contraceptives and stressed celibacy, which didn’t yield any positive change— her efforts went against tradition, religion and also the Father of the Nation.

She came up with her own module for the birth control programme and in 1949, founded the Family Planning Association of India, the largest non-governmental organisation working in the field of population control in the country then. With her strenuous awareness efforts, India’s family planning programmes received global recognition and many countries adopted it as a part of their national agenda for development. Interestingly, men were the target of her awareness programmes. This was because birth control treatments could be more easily performed on men than women. Moreover, if men realised the value of a small family, either they would get the treatment done or encourage their wives to go for it. The result: Half a million Indian men voluntarily underwent hysterectomy.

Due to her exceptional efforts, India became the first country to launch a nationwide family planning programme in 1952.

Although the world recognises Margaret Sanger as a pioneer of birth control awareness programmes, Dhanvanthi’s efforts in setting up the International Planned Parenthood Federation, of which she was the founding member and president, cannot be brushed aside. This effort of hers has almost been erased from public memory.

It is sad that Dhanvanthi, a woman achiever; a pioneer, has been forgotten by Indians in general and the people of Karnataka in particular.

(The writer is an assistant professor of English, Tumkur University)