by Sara Sidner
(CNN) New Delhi – Nineteen-year-old Kalawati Kumari stares at her 11-month-old baby boy filled with both love and regret.
She wishes her life could be different.
“I did not want to have children now. I want to study.”
Kumari didn’t want to get married either. But when she was 11, her parents arranged her marriage. In keeping with family tradition, she stayed at home until she reached puberty and then had to move in with the family of the village boy she was promised to.
She says she did her best to continue her studies. But when she moved in with her in-laws, they told her there was no need anymore. They wanted something else: babies.
“I tried to explain to my husband and in-laws,” Kumari said, “My husband understood it was too early and started using contraceptives, but my in-laws starting taunting me about having a child, so my husband said we had to stop using contraceptives.”
Kumari lives in rural Bihar, India where tradition calls for early marriage and childbirth at a young age, and doing otherwise is often frowned upon.
“These are very deep rooted [in the] culture of the family especially in the deprived section and poor illiterate section,” Binod Bihari Singh said. He works for a non-profit organization called Pathfinder International. Its mission is to educate villagers about reproductive health in order to improve overall health in families and communities. Pathfinder operates in 26 countries, with private and government funding, and has been operating in Bihar for more than nine years.
Government statistics show Bihar has the highest fertility rate in India. On average women in Bihar have four children compared to India’s fertility rate of 2.7 children. Bihar is also one of the poorest states in the country.
Villagers and government officials credit Pathfinder with improving health and lives there, and opening minds to the choices and economic opportunities created by having children later in life.
Rekha Kumari attends Pathfinder classes on reproductive health. In separate rooms, both boys and girls get an education about their reproductive organs, contraceptives and the effects of early marriage and child bearing. With her new-found knowledge, Rekha made a decision.
“My thought is that let me study first and become economically self independent then I can help my self in marriage,” Rekha said.
Her mother was married by 10 years old and had seven children. Her sisters were all married off at young ages and are having children. Rehka was an oddity, to say the least.
“We get lots of comments and pressure from the neighborhood and distant relatives asking, 'why am I not getting married though I have become matured?'” Rekha said. “They say I am being stubborn and not obeying even my parents.”
At first her family didn’t like the idea either.
“Marriage is important to off load your burden to someone who will take care of your daughter.” Rekha’s mom Pulmati Devi said. “Once she goes her in-law’s house she will be happy over there and we parents will be anxiety free.”
In many villages and towns across India girls are often thought of as a burden because to marry them off, a dowry must be paid to her new husband’s family. Often families keep having babies until they have a boy
So far Rekha has avoided marriage. Two big actors worked in her favour: First, she convinced her parents she could become financially independent and lead a better life. And second, the family didn’t have the money to pay her dowry, about 50-thousand rupees, or more than a thousand US dollars. That's a fortune for families living on incomes of less than two dollars a day.
This year the Indian government said there are 100 million more people living below the poverty line in India than previously thought. The United Nations and nonprofit groups like Pathfinder say that reproductive education and family planning can help stop the cycle of poverty. The country has long tired to get families to limit the number of children a couple has to two.
“When you look at the rapid growth in population and combine it with the levels of poverty you’re going see environmental degradation, your going to see increasing poverty because the economic opportunity is not growing as rapidly as population is, and you are going to see an increase in women’s mortality.” Pathfinder International’s Rema Nanda said.
Rekha Kumari may be the one who stops the cycle of poverty in her family. She is already dreaming of a different kind of future.
“I am collecting courage for my self development and I would like to teach the same thing to the village children to make their life prosperous.”