Written By Lexi Barab
Be sure to check out the “Did you know?” section at the end of this blog to learn more about the bold words.
Rekha comes into the training room, laughing with the other Village Health Workers. She sits in the chair at the front of the room, adjusts her green sari, and centers her gold marriage necklace. Once the visitors have settled down, she starts her story.
She was the third and final daughter born to poor day laborer parents. At the age of 13, her parents arranged her marriage to an older man whose family was willing to take her without a large dowry. After staying in her husband’s house in the village for a few months, they moved four hours away to Pune. Her husband worked outside the city and would come back to their house every few days. She knew nothing of his outside affairs.
At the age of fourteen and a half, Rekha became pregnant. She went home to be with her mother’s family for the delivery and, shortly thereafter, delivered twin girls. One died immediately after birth; the other, weighing only 1.5 kg, seemed too weak to live. After receiving intensive care, the remaining girl child survived and became healthy. While Rekha was staying at her mother’s house with the baby, her husband married another woman. Her husband and his new wife stayed in another house in Pune. He never came to visit Rekha or their baby. Four months after Rekha’s delivery, her husband returned to live with her and her baby in his home village. Then his second wife filed a complaint with the police. He was forced to go to court and ordered to stay with his second wife, abandoning Rekha and her baby. Rekha didn’t want to live with her mother’s family because she and her baby would cause undue stress on their already fragile economic state, but she had no alternative. She was also worried about how she would be treated in the community as an abandoned woman. She became depressed, crying constantly and refusing to leave the house. The village’s VHW at the time came to visit her after hearing about her situation. She listened to Rekha’s story and told her to come to CRHP where she could do good work and earn money. Rekha thought, “How could an unskilled person like me be good at any job?” After six months of trying to persuade her, the VHW succeeded; Rekha agreed to come to CRHP to learn to be a VHW.
Rekha was, at first, intimidated by all the other VHWs who looked so “confident” and “well-dressed.” She assumed that everyone here was of a higher-caste while she was the only one from a lower caste. She sat quietly through some of the VHW meetings, refusing to share her story and speak with the other women. One staff member by the name of Jelus pulled her aside and asked why she was so timid and quiet; Rekha told Jelus her story. Jelus then shared her success story; she too was a destitute woman like Rekha but because of CRHP she had now become self-sufficient and strong. From then on, Rekha learned quickly with the other VHWs, answering questions in class and performing well.
“Raj and Mabelle Arole were like parents to me. They were always kind and gentle, more concerned with my life and success than my past,” Rekha says of CRHP’s founders. When Rekha told the Aroles about how impoverished her parents were, Raj gave her father five goats to raise with the intention that her father would pay back the money within time. Her father took good care of the goats, and Raj gave him another loan of ten goats, which her father again repaid. For extra income, Rekha started stitching classes. Raj saw her interest and dedication and gave her an embroidery machine so she could start her own business. Slowly, Rekha’s family’s income grew, and they were able to move out of their small mud hut and build a nice small house.
After training at the CRHP campus, it was time for Rekha to spread her health knowledge to the people in her village. When she first started working in the village, the people did not accept her, “They lacked confidence in my ability to identify and cure even simple diseases and problems such as childhood diarrhea. Raj told me that I must treat everyone nicely regardless of how they act towards me.” So she went door to door in her village and greeted everyone with respect and kindness. At the same time, her business was doing well and, over time, her wealth led everyone in the village to respect and trust her. Rekha started additional women’s groups, spread sanitation knowledge, and educated everyone from children to adults about basic health and social issues. “Before, people did not respect me or my work, but now the people of my village refer to me as doctor or older sister. I have been a VHW for thirteen years now. My favorite thing about being a VHW is conducting safe deliveries, caring for children under the age of five, and teaching the adolescent girls,” she says, gleaming.
Chai is served to the visitors and the VHWs. Rekha smiles, crinkling her nose and exposing only the tops of her teeth. She takes a sip of Chai and finishes her story, “At CRHP I learned how to use government programs to improve the economic situation of my village and my family. I used a government scheme to acquire a flourmill and started a business. People from my village saw my success and asked me to help them take advantage of government programs. As Dr. Raj Arole taught me, the people in your village will come to trust you only when they see that you have become successful yourself. No malnourished woman will ask for your help with nutrition if you are malnourished, and no poor person will trust your advice if you are also destitute. Everything my family and I have become is due to CRHP, the knowledge and confidence I have gained, and the kindness and guidance of the Aroles. Before coming to CRHP I did not know who I was. Now I have an identity, and I know what I can do for my society.”
Did you know…?
- Dowry, a payment given from the bride to the bridegroom’s family upon marriage, has persisted as a social tenet of Indian marriages, despite its illegalization in 1961. The practice of dowry is often viewed as a social evil, thought to encourage violence against women as well as the perception of women as property. Violence against brides, including murder, bride burning, acid throwing, or forced exclusion can occur if the groom’s family feels they received too little dowry or the bride’s family refuses future requests for money. Female feticide can also result, as families may favor male sons in order to gain future dowry income.
- Early pregnancies: Girls often become pregnant within a year or two of marriage; 22 percent of Indian girls have given birth before the age of 18, which endangers both the mother and child. Girls under the age of 18 are twice as likely to die during childbirth, and their infants are 50 percent more likely to result in stillbirths and newborn deaths. The increased morbidity continues throughout the child’s life; the risk of malnutrition is higher for children of mothers under the age of 18. Furthermore, the daughters of young mothers are at a greater risk to be married as children as well.
- Goat loans: CRHP’s demonstration farm started a new goat program in order to help more people improve their livelihoods through goat loans. The farm has purchased five adult female goats, ten kids, and one buck. Once the program triples its number of goats, CRHP will provide landless farmers with goats as a loan to be repaid with kids or meat. The goat loans will provide a source of agricultural income for poorer individuals who would ordinarily not have such access.
1. Donate to CRHP! Please be sure to write “Unheard Voices” in the notes section, so your donation will be counted accordingly.
2. Learn more about child marriages in India here.
3. Write to Rekha! If you have comments or questions for Moses about his experience, please email him at email@example.com or write to:
Comprehensive Rural Health Project
C/o Rekha Poudmal
Jamkhed, Dist. Ahmednagar
References: Girls Not Brides. 2014. Marry me later: preventing child marriage and early pregnancy in India.