Dispatch

In Nepal, Tradition Is Killing Women

The Hindu practice of chhaupadi is dangerous and deadly, but legislation is not enough to stop it.

A Nepalese woman prepares to sleep in a chhaupadi hut during her period in Surkhet District, 300 miles west of Kathmandu. Feb. 3, 2017.
A Nepalese woman prepares to sleep in a chhaupadi hut during her period in Surkhet District, 300 miles west of Kathmandu. Feb. 3, 2017. (PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images)

KATHMANDU, Nepal—Dhana Bista was dreading leaving Kathmandu for her village in the far-western region of the Himalayan country to visit her family last October. Winter was approaching, and she was apprehensive about the arduous 23-hour bus ride to Dadeldhura district on the Indian border, but more than that, she was anxious about what would happen when she got there. “If I’m menstruating, I will be banished to the small shed that my family built especially for me. I got my period at the age of 14, and since then I’ve been forced to do this,” the 32-year-old said. “I really don’t want to go. It makes me angry.”

In Nepal’s predominantly agrarian communities, women are banished from their homes every month when they get their periods. Many are relegated to menstruation huts or sheds that families such as Bista’s have specifically built for their daughters or daughters-in-law; many other women are sent to adjoining barns, where they sleep among stinking cows, goats, and buffalo.

This ancient Hindu practice is called chhaupadi, and it has been in place for hundreds of years in Nepal, as well as in parts of India and Bangladesh. It is rooted in the belief that menstrual blood is impure. “Chhaupadi is form of seclusion connected to Hindus’ deep religious beliefs and feelings about ritual purity and impurity,” explained Mary Cameron, a professor of anthropology at Florida Atlantic University who has worked extensively in Nepal. “The social consequence of this pure-impure binary is some of the world’s most overt forms of discrimination. It tells girls that they’re inferior and dirty.”

While chhaupadi is a Hindu practice, that by no means implies it is widespread. Rather, the practice is extremely localized. “In far-west Nepal [where the strictest forms of chhaupadi are practiced], the practice is tied to deities—the belief that any kind of impurity will make deities angry and may cause misfortune to a community,” Cameron said.

Women are not only banished from their homes for the duration of their period but are also barred from entering the kitchen and touching food, religious icons, cattle, and men. There are also strict rules around water, which is considered pure in Hinduism. They are not allowed to use community water sources (the main source of water in a village) and are not allowed to bath or wash clothes from any communal water sources.

Some of the spaces women as young as 12 are sent to are as small as a closet and so uncomfortably narrow that only one person can squeeze inside. The huts are made of mud and straw, and in the winter, when temperatures drop below freezing, there’s little women can do to protect themselves against the harsh Himalayan weather.

“It’s very cold in winter, and the door doesn’t shut,” Bista said. “I’m only allowed to use a straw carpet, which is spread across the floor of the hut to sleep on. My family believes that if I don’t follow chhaupadi, then God will be angry and he will curse us.”

Nepal’s Supreme Court banned chhaupadi in 2005, calling it a human rights violation, but it has continued to flourish not only in Nepal’s mid- and far-western regions but in varying forms across the country, where fears of consequences for breaking menstrual taboos keep a tight grip. For example, in urban settings where constructing a separate structure is impossible, most families rent an extra room for the woman to sleep in every month.

In 2017, Nepal’s government was forced into action after a spate of highly publicized deaths of women practicing chhaupadi. In just 10 months, three girls lost their lives while in staying in sheds, including one from a snakebite and another from smoke inhalation, after desperately trying to keep warm in the freezing winter.

The deaths shone a light on the dangers of the practice, during which women not only face the prospect of death but also the danger of violence, rape, and a host of health problems, including pneumonia. Moreover, chhaupadi, which also banishes women from their homes for up to 10 days after childbirth in some communities, increases the risk of infant and maternal deaths. Just a few years ago, a mother left her newborn alone in a shed for a few minutes, and a jackal snatched her baby.

Nepal’s parliament criminalized chhaupadi in August 2017, in a law that was passed unanimously. “A woman during her menstruation or post-natal state should not be kept in chhaupadi or treated with any kind of similar discrimination or untouchable and inhuman behaviour,” the law reads.

The legislation, which came into effect in August 2018, carries a three-month jail sentence, a fine of 3,000 rupees ($25), or both, for anyone who forces a woman to follow the practice. While women’s rights activists hailed the law as a step in the right direction, they were quick to point out that much more than a law would be needed to rid the country of the deep-rooted practice.

A law cannot easily override a practice that is written in Hindu scriptures, they argued. Sadly, they were right. It doesn’t look like the prospect of a $25 fine—a significant amount of money, particularly in impoverished villages—and a jail stint in a rotting cell will be enough to deter people.

“How can a law change a belief that is so ingrained in people’s mindsets?” asked Lachhindra Maharjan, the head of advocacy at Save the Children Nepal. “Moreover, who is going to monitor this? We can have the best laws in the world, but if they’re not implemented, what’s the point? I’m really very scared to see what will happen this winter.”

The law didn’t mandate enforcement. There is no monitoring or accountability mechanism. Nepal is considered a leader in South Asia in passing laws to protect vulnerable groups—for example, it’s been a leader in protecting LGBT rights—but laws and bills rarely get implemented. There is no accountability whatsoever.

While some villages in the mid- and far-western regions have begun dismantling chhaupadi huts with the help of police, Maharjan fears that it’s just a publicity stunt. And because some of the sheds are multipurpose and used for housing animals, destroying them may simply be an impossible task.

Maharjan is particularly frustrated after Save the Children worked with other organizations on a five-year chhaupadi elimination project in the far west, which led to the mass destruction of sheds, only for them to be rebuilt when the project ended. “The menstrual huts are more important than people’s own homes,” he said.

“People justify the practice on the grounds of religion and myths. Chhaupadi has become like child marriage—socially acceptable,” he added. There is a widespread belief that something bad will happen if they don’t adhere to the tradition.

Maharjan says there’s a lack of interest from religious leaders—who exert huge influence in communities—and men to end the practice. He believes that change needs to be gradual, so rather than ban chhaupadi altogether and expect it will stop, change should start small, such as creating a separate space inside the house where a woman can sleep, and go from there.

A fundamental shortcoming of the law is that it relies on a woman going to a police station to report a family member. That requires women to report people close to them. In a patriarchal society, that seems highly unlikely. Moreover, it’s unclear what would be used as evidence.

“I wouldn’t rely much on the justice system,” Cameron said. “The local way of doing things has preeminence over Kathmandu-based laws.”

Anju Dhungana from Nepal’s Ministry of Women, Children, and Social Welfare agrees. “Now that we have the law, the critical challenge is implementation,” she said. “The problem is that people have been practicing this for a long, long time.”

Rather than relying on the law, Dhungana says the ministry is working on getting menstruation and the chhaupadi law written into school curriculums to “enable students to know that menstruation is a natural process” and that “chhaupadi is a harmful, dangerous practice.”

To stop the practice, educating people about menstruation and chhaupadi’s harmful effects must start at school. When women get their periods and haven’t been educated about it, they will inevitably believe their families who tell them it’s because they’re impure. Teaching kids that menstruation is natural is critical.

Radha Paudel is a menstrual rights activist and the founder of Actions Works Nepal, a nonprofit organization focused on women’s rights. She says the law is failing women not only because it’s not being implemented—like myriad other laws and policies in Nepal—but also because it fails to define the concept of chhaupadi properly.

She says the law neglects to take into the account the nuances of chhaupadi across different parts of Nepal and fails to address all the restrictions that come with the practice, which include a ban on bathing and restrictions on women’s diets. “The law speaks about the visible things only: the banishing of women to a shed outside,” she says.

Paudel doesn’t doubt that banishing women to sheds must urgently stop, but she believes the law neglects what is perceived as “less dangerous” forms of menstrual restrictions, which also fuel gender inequality, stigma, and discrimination.

“If I’m in Kathmandu, and I’m living in an apartment using the best quality sanitary products money can buy, but I cannot enter the kitchen to have food or water, and I have to sleep in a separate room to my husband, there’s deep level of isolation and discrimination,” she said.

“Because of that segregation and isolation, girls start to live with a deep feeling of inferiority and humiliation. No matter how much education she has, no matter a family’s economic status, she’s living with the feeling that she is less than a male.”

Ending chhaupadi must begin with enabling women to have “dignity” during their period, Paudel says, including access to sanitary products and bins to dispose of them at schools across the country. “Girls and women deserve dignity during menstruation, but there is a deep ignorance, even among the government and NGOs working on this. We live in a patriarchal society where women live only to think about their husbands and children.”

Back on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Bista says she doesn’t follow any menstrual restrictions in the capital, where she moved with her husband a few years ago. But she wouldn’t dare tell the elders in her family, who continue to impose chhaupadi during her frequent visits back to Dadeldhura and when they come to visit her in Kathmandu.

“When I’m in Kathmandu, I’m the queen,” she said. “But I feel really irritated when I go back to my village and I have to go into the hut during my period. I know that chhaupadi is illegal, even my villagers know it is. Despite the government saying it should stop, I think it will continue because of people’s narrow minds.”

Sophie Cousins is a health journalist based in South Asia. She is currently writing a book on women’s health in the region. Twitter: @SophCousins
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