NEW YORK - A biography of Dr Nafis Sadik, the first female head of a major United Nations agency — the UN Population Fund — was launched on Wednesday evening at a ceremony marked by high praise for her pioneering contribution to improving the health of the world’s women and children.

Written by bestselling author Cathleen Miller, the book ‘Champion of Choice’ follows the life of Dr Sadik, a Pakistani Obstetrician, from her birth in 1929 through medical school in Pakistan and a storied career that includes brokering a 20-year agreement on women’s reproductive rights at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo that was signed by 179 governments.

Dr Sadik, who served as UNFPA’s executive director from 1987-2000, was the secretary-general of the groundbreaking ICPD in Cairo. She continues to travel across Asia, now as special envoy of the UN Secretary-General for HIV/AIDS.

Speaking on the largely-attended ceremony, the present head of UNFPA, Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, said Dr Sadik had done a great job in promoting women’s rights and he draws inspiration from her work. He said Dr Nafis Sadik and UNFPA were synonymous.

Dr Osotimehin called her the “greatest women advocate for all times.” Carmen Barroso, regional director of International Planned Parenthood, moderated the ceremony held at the Ford Foundation building. It was pointed out that when Dr Sadik took the post at the fledgling United Nations Population Fund in 1971, the average global birthrate equaled six children per mother. By the time of her retirement in 2000, the average birthrate had been cut in half. Her strategy was simple, but groundbreaking: provide females with education and the tools to control their own fertility.

Dr Sadik thanked the speakers for the tributes paid to her, but said that women must continue to struggle for the advancement of their rights, as only laws do not change the behaviour towards them.

“I talk to many women’s groups, about women’s rights—and about rights for men too, not just for women. Gender issues must involve both men and women. We seem to be only thinking about women, but women need to involve men and also men themselves must get involved in women’s rights in terms of both structure and concepts,” she said.

“You have to find what you are committed to and stick to that commitment. You have to have the courage to defend it and promote it—not so easy to do sometimes, but you have to do it. Be committed, creative, speak up, and speak out.”