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Remembering Adrienne Germain, Pioneer of Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights

Adrienne Germain greets Ishita Chaudhry
Adrienne Germain greets Ishita Chaudhry, a women’s rights advocate, on stage at an International Women’s Health Coalition gala, Feb. 8, 2011. Germain, who died on May 19, 2022, was a passionate advocate on behalf of the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls across the globe.

Adrienne Germain, who helped shape international development and women’s rights for more than four decades, died on May 19, 2022, at her home in Oakland, Calif. She was 75 years old. Her passionate advocacy on behalf of the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls was recognized worldwide.

Early in her career at the Ford Foundation, she encouraged senior leadership there to focus on the circumstances and needs of women and to hire women at the foundation and grantees working on international development. She had a mischievous quality that encouraged her to find ways to move barriers around institutional and cultural injustices.

In 1981, she became Ford’s representative in Bangladesh, the youngest and only woman in this role of a development partner agency in the country. She was dubbed a “rebel in white gloves” by Miriam Horn, the author and environmentalist, and championed women’s rights and agency.

In Bangladesh and throughout her career, German brought to bear a rare combination of skills: total devotion and passion for her work, a sharp intellect, extensive scholarship and unique powers of observation. Rounaq Jahan, a native of Bangladesh, remembers that Germain sought to understand people from all backgrounds, saying: “Rural and urban, poor and middle class and carefully identified opportunities for strengthening their voices so that they can claim and protect their own rights.”

In Bangladesh, where agricultural programs emphasized staple crops such as rice and jute, Germain encouraged support for a full range of crops that would support local households, improve nutrition and provide productive employment for women.

She was also an early proponent of focusing on credit as a foundation for economic opportunity for women in Bangladesh and on education for girls. Through the Ford Foundation, she provided the first grant to the Grameen Bank and personally leveraged commercial support from the South Shore Bank in Chicago, which helped Grameen prosper.

According to Jahan, Germain supported a wide range of initiatives during her service in Bangladesh. “She was a lifelong supporter of Bangladesh’s Menstrual Regulation (MR) program, a government initiative that provided women services to have a choice on their pregnancy decisions,” Jahan said.  “She also funded museums and other institutions to promote Bangladesh’s rich traditions and culture.”

In 1985, Joan Dunlop recruited Germain from Bangladesh to help make the International Women’s Health Coalition a leader in organizing women around the world and leverage their voices into policy changes. Throughout most of the next quarter century, Dunlop and Germain built the coalition, or IWHC, into a major force for women’s health and rights.

As vice president from 1985 to 1998 and president from 1998 to 2011 of the organization in New York City, Germain identified and supported talented women leaders throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America to create a global network of advocates on behalf of women and of reproductive health. The network is a veritable “who’s who” of progressive women leaders stretching around the world — Judith Bruce, Sonia Correa, Gita Sen, Bene Madunagu, Rounaq Jahan, Peggy Antrobus, Jaxqueline Pitanguy, Gloria Careaga Perez, Ruth Dixon-Mueller and hundreds more.

At the IWHC, Germain continued her criticism of narrow family-planning programs that focused almost exclusively on distribution of contraceptives, especially irreversible methods and sterilization.  Working with colleagues globally, Germain articulated a new vision for client-centered reproductive health services and parallel initiatives that considered the circumstances that women were living in, which too often includes violence, curtailed educational and economic opportunities as well as cultural and legal inequality.

Reflecting on her academic research and experiences in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Germain pioneered the concept of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Her broader reproductive health approach encompassed women’s health before, during and after a pregnancy and the survival and well-being of the newborn. She also advocated for access to abortion care both as a human-rights and public health issue. Her vision also called for greater investment in girls’ education, women’s economic opportunities and active engagement of countries to protect human rights.

The IWHC promoted the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) approach to international development through publishing research articles by Germain, as well as investments in and collaboration with women leaders in key countries. The organization and Germain both achieved its signature accomplishment at the International Conference on Population and Development and Fourth World Conference on Women, where the expanded vision of reproductive health was adopted as a new framework for international development by most members of the United Nations.

To this day, the SRHR approach remains the framework for so-called “population” policies and has been adapted to serve the international fight against HIV/AIDs and other health and development initiatives. In this way, Germain was instrumental in making women central and engaged in human rights and global development policy.

In 2012, she received the UN Population Fund’s global leadership award for her pioneering work with governments and NGOs at the local, national and international levels.

“The ideas that Adrienne and her colleagues introduced remain a precious legacy,” said Ellen Chesler, the feminist author and a former IWHC board chair. “They have driven progress, inspired concrete change, and lifted the human spirit — against all odds — so that today, despite unrelenting backlash, gender equality occupies an ever more secure position at the center of global discourse. This stunning accomplishment results from the dogged determination and agency of Adrienne and women like her from every country in the world. Her death inspires us anew to go out and defend women’s rights.”

Throughout her career, Germain was known for indefatigable work habits. Early on, when women in philanthropy had to fight for every opportunity, she created a vacation itinerary that allowed her to observe Ford Foundation country programs in Pakistan and the Philippines. When her plane made an emergency crash landing in the Brazilian Amazon during a trip to deliver menstrual regulation equipment, she dusted herself off, rounded up her colleagues and led them on a 17-hour expedition out of the forest so she could resume her work.

According to her lifelong friend and colleague, Judith Bruce, a senior associate with the Population Council: “Adrienne’s courage was evident not only by the causes she embraced, shaped, and gave substance to, but also by her devotion to them as measured in hellbent travel, endless Sundays at her writing desk, or body time in international negotiations with intolerant, intractable and often cynical adversaries. She mercilessly deployed herself as an instrument of change sometimes to the point of prostrate exhaustion. Her total commitment to the cause propelled her into the public space, outside the safety of her naturally introverted self and her preference for solitary interrogation.”

On her retirement in 2012, Germain continued to write, speak and consult with colleagues to promote sexual and reproductive health and rights. She returned to California, where she was born, to enjoy more of the outdoors, which too often was sacrificed in her life for negotiations in the basement of the UN or the resources and contacts found in the office.

For half a century, Germain championed women’s health and rights. Her accomplishments are well known and recognized. She earned her place among the most influential women leaders in recent history.  She will be missed by her family, friends and people everywhere who aspire for a more just world for all the world’s women.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Ellen Marshall is a partner in Partners in Good Works Group, a consulting firm that works with NGOs. She worked with Adrienne Germain for 20 years, including in negotiations for the International Conference on Population and Development and the Fourth World Conference on Women.

David Harwood is a partner with Partners in Good Works Group, a consulting firm that works with NGOs. He worked with Adrienne Germain for 20 years, including in negotiations for the International Conference on Population and Development and the Fourth World Conference on Women.

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Remembering Adrienne Germain, Pioneer of Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights
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michaela walsh
michaela walsh
1 month ago

Thank you Ellen and David and PASSBLUE. Wish we had more efforts like this to talk about some of the women who had early ideas for change and had courage to promote them.

Susan Davis
Susan Davis
5 months ago

I am so saddened to learn of Adrienne’s death at the young age of 75. Thank you for honoring her life with this lovely tribute. She made her scratch on history.

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