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DHANVANTHI RAMA RAU (1893–1987)


Dhanvanthi Rama Rau was a campaigner for women’s reproductive rights and could be called the Margaret Sanger of India.

Born in Hubli of Kashmiri stock on 10 May 1893 and brought up in Allahabad, she obtained an MA from Madras University and began her career as a lecturer at Queen Mary’s College. She became a founder member of the Women’s Indian Association in 1917, and campaigned for the Sharda Bill in 1927–28. From 1929 to 1938 she lived in London with her husband, Benegal Rama Rau, as representative for the All India Women’s Conference. For her services, she was decorated with the Kaiser-i-hind medal in 1938. When Benegal Rama Rau was posted to South Africa as High Commissioner in 1939, she went with him and organised the Indian women of Durban.

She worked in famine relief in Bengal and Bombay in 1943, and in 1946 she was elected president of the AIWC. After Independence, in 1949, she embarked on the work for which she is best known. The controversy and debate over Margaret Sanger’s ideas on birth control had interested her keenly, and Margaret herself had visited India several times at the AIWC’s instance back in 1922–27. Now Dhanvanthi set up the All India Family Planning Association and campaigned to have family planning made one of the goals of the first Five Year Plan. In this she had to fight ignorance and superstition strengthened by the Mahatma’s aversion to artificial contraception. She also served as the President of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. She worked tirelessly for women’s reproductive rights and to keep concern for the health of mothers and children uppermost in the government’s approach to population control. In 1959 she was awarded the Padma Bhushan for her contributions to society. Her daughter Santha is well known as a writer, and her granddaughter Aisha Wayle became the first woman to own a London investment company. Her memoir is titled An Inheritance.
 
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