Fred Sai: A Godfather of Family Planning

He is known to have dedicated most of his life to the well-being of children and women across the globe by championing the cause of making reproductive health information and service accessible to couples and individuals.

It is due to this meritorious service to Ghana and beyond that earned Prof. Fred Torgbor Sai the title ‘Godfather of Family Planning’ in 2012 by the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet. This is due to the fact that he has ceaselessly fought for the universal access to sexual and reproductive rights, individual’s right to family planning information, education, services and supply.

On Monday, July 29, 2018, there was a relaunch of the Prof. Sai Institute – a population, sexual and reproductive health research institute in honour of the nonagenarian for his commitment to the institutionalisation of the right to reproductive health services, including family planning in the world.
The institute was named after him because he has had a distinguished career with the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). Besides, he spearheaded the setting up of the IPPF Africa Regional Office, as well as the Centre for African Family Studies (CAFS) in Nairobi, becoming the first President of the IPPF.

The Fred T. Sai Institute is one of Africa’s pioneer public health research institutes, championing research on population and sexual reproductive health in Africa. An initiative of IPPF Africa Region, the institute seeks to generate evidence on effective health strategies aimed at improving the health of the population in sub-Saharan Africa.
This it does through supporting innovative research, and whose results provide a basis for the development and implementation of sound sexual reproductive health and rights policies and programmes.
Looking frail but hearty, Prof. Sai was happy for the relaunch of the research institute. He stated: “It is heartwarming to receive such recognition while alive. I am happy to see to this relaunch and may the institute grow from strength to strength. May it spur on researchers to find answers into issues on sexual reproductive health to empower our leaders, mothers and fathers.”

Fred Sai Institute (FSI)

The FSI was first launched in 2014 in Nairobi, Kenya. It is an initiative of the IPPF Africa Region, established in Prof. Sai’s honour as a “pioneer public health research institute, championing research on population and sexual reproductive health to generate evidence on effective health strategies aimed at improving the health of the population in sub-Saharan Africa”.
The FSI will endeavour to bridge this gap through supporting research, modelling and replication of innovative service delivery programmes. The research conducted will generate evidence for sound programme design and implementation in the 42 African countries that IPPF Africa Region works in.

A participant leaves her message on the banner timeline of Prof Sai during the relaunching of the Fred T Sai Institute in Accra

Living the dream

In a presentation to Universal Access Project, a project of the United Nations Foundation, Prof. Sai shared his story on why as a man, he was deeply rooted in the issues of women’s health. He said: “I happen to have lived through some of the horrific circumstances that can surround the issue of family planning and reproductive rights.”

According to him, his father died when he was barely four years old, hence he was brought up mainly by his mother. “I had to stay in the women’s compound at Osu, a suburb of Accra, where I grew up, a lot longer than ordinary boys of my clan. I stayed there until I was about 10 years old. So as a young, impressionable child, I was always surrounded by girls, my powerful aunties and my mother. Then a bit later, I worked in my first job as a stand-in teacher to a class of 30 girls at Osu, and I learned even more about girls,” he recounted.

During that time, he was anxiously awaiting his results after writing the Cambridge School Certificate examination, which had been delayed by World War ll. “Finally, I left my country at age 23, in 1947, and went overseas, having received by good fortune a British Colonial Government scholarship. I trained in medicine at the University of London and in Edinburgh,” he stated, adding that in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, not even the condom was available very readily. “I saw the result of this restriction. There were girls, overseas students like us, who had gotten pregnant and could not face it and had gone to unskilled providers. A couple of them had died, and one had attempted suicide,” he stated.
When he returned to Ghana as a doctor, one of his assignments was to conduct autopsies or post mortems, and he saw horrible things on those slabs as a result of botched abortions.

“Early on, I was doing research for a paper I had to write and I began to read about nutrition. I read about the malnutrition levels in Africa and I became engaged in this problem. Later in the 1960s, when I was called to help develop the family planning programme in my country, I didn’t hesitate to join,” he emphasised.

“It was around this time that I made the connection between nutrition and family planning. I was looking after these children who had “kwashiorkor”, as we call it, which is protein-energy malnutrition. Scientific papers had reported that quite a large proportion of the children found with this condition had mothers who had had children very close together. So we began to advise people on how to space their children better,” he stated.
Prof. Sai explained that women were dying in childbirth by the hundreds – not because the technology for saving them was not available, but because the will, support, enthusiasm and understanding that that was the humane thing to do was not there.

“When you see women dying from preventable and manageable causes, you must do something. I am confident that we can address this crisis if we shift our approach and start investing in women. We must increase women’s access to health services. We must promote business development and support women with grants and loans. We must ensure that girls have access to quality education, and we must work to convince our neighbours, be they relatives or countries, to prioritise women and girls in all that they do,” he stressed.

Working years and family life

In his 50-year career, Prof. Sai advocated for family planning policies in Ghana, leading to the provision of subsidised family planning services to public hospitals by the government in 2007 under the Free Maternal Health Policy.

Known in the global community as a champion of women’s sexual and reproductive health, he is also an authority on health, nutrition and population. He believes that any young girl or woman who wants an abortion should be allowed to have one in a safe medical environment.

Prof. Sai held the Chairmanship for Main Committees of the last two major United Nations (UN) conferences on population and development: the 1984 International Conference on Population in Mexico City and the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.
He has received many awards for his efforts, including the 1993 UN Population Award, and in 2006, one of his nation’s highest honours, the Member of the Star of Ghana.

Prof. Sai served as the Chairman of the National Population Council of Ghana from 1992 to 1997. He was also the Senior Population Advisor at the World Bank from 1985 to 1990.

Prof. Sai is a product of the Osu Presbyterian Senior Boys School (Salem), Achimota College, University of London and Harvard University. He is married to Florence and together, they have raised six children.
Despite his age, Prof. Sai likes to share knowledge on health-related issues, loves golf, highlife, jazz music and spending time with friends and family.

Fred Sai: A Godfather of Family Planning

Story by: Hadiza Nuhu Quansah/

Photosgraphy: Kobby Blay


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