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India: The pressure to have children

April 22nd, 2010
06:38 PM ET

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.”

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soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Jane Roberts

    Hi Christiane, you have my book 34 Million Friends of the Women of the World. Please see. I gave it to you at the Feminist Majority Foundation function. We are still going. UNFPA has put out a video TOO BRIEF A CHILD: Voices of Married Adolescents. Heartrending. I'm glad you had the courage to deal with this controvertial and necessary subject and alos to deal with the subject of population. Cheers, Jane Roberts

    April 23, 2010 at 12:59 am | Reply
  2. Fernando F.

    Rekha is amazing. To go against her family in that country I'm sure is not easy. People in India need to understand that they need Equilibrium to survive and progress. The demand is surpassing the production and they will never have enough to live a plenty life. They have to teach men and women (with some videos) how much better life is when Equilibrium exists in a family. Multiple children, when the economic resources are limited, will bring extreme poverty for years to come.

    April 23, 2010 at 2:40 am | Reply
  3. Su Schroeder

    IMO, any country allowing grown men to marry girls under 18 is condoning pedophilia. In America we put pedophiliacs in prison.

    April 23, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  4. Free American

    We must distinguish between having sex and making babies.
    What is the proper reasonable age for a woman to have the first baby and the proper reasonable age for a man to father that baby? ?
    What is the proper reasonable age to have the first sexual intercourse?

    April 23, 2010 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  5. Susan difficult it is to change cultural mores...Retha is to be sooo commended ~ and should be proud of her strength!! I don't know how "we" change cultures which should be apparent in Afganistan, etc. as well as many other cultures. Is it possible to have a common denominator ~I'm thinking that education is the answer ~ but it has to be within the values of a culture. It's time!!!

    Fernando, you're on the right path ~ Su and Free ~ I think you're imposing American values (with which I am in agreement) on cultures which have other values. How do we develop understanding??? If the Arabian culture tried to impose on us, the "value" of keeping women totally covered, etc. how would we react?? Just food for tho't.

    April 25, 2010 at 12:45 am | Reply
  6. Ashim Kumar Chatterjee

    TV has reached most part of India and transistors even greater. It is, therefore, difficult to accept that people are not aware of issues related early marraige, birth control practices etc. But not all are equally incentivised to follow the right path. This is due to absence of right policy measures consisting of disincentives for child marraige and not adopting reproductive health practices. Role of village level admistration in India, which is known as "gram panchyat" needs to be redefined to include prevention of child marraige and population control rather than leave these matter to NGOs, who often have vested
    interst in perpetuation problems like these problems. IF panchyats were subjected to monetary penlties for failures and incentivised for success in these areas, results would be better. I am sure the NGO under reference had not reported this matter to police, department of women welfare this case of child marraige, which is not valid under law and had the groom and parents arrested.

    April 25, 2010 at 2:24 am | Reply
  7. bian ebelle

    our world is confronted to several ills at the same time. most of these problems are due to under-education of people.

    April 26, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  8. OldStone50

    Much of the rush to have babies is premised on the rationalization of economic improvement – mostly the pursuit of sons, i.e., male laborers – think slaves born to benefit parents. Daughters wind up being trade commodities in that game. It's a breed-your-way-out-of-poverty scam. In the West, too, we hear the similar argument that our aging population will lead to economic catastrophe if we don't breed more.

    Although poverty is not automatically alleviated with high per capita resources, it is impossible to avoid with low per capita resources. If we aspire to a world of wealthy people, then we must seriously consider what population size we choose to have to benefit our children and our children's children.

    April 27, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Reply
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