Last week, an eighteen-year-old girl died in a menstrual hut in Achham, a remote far western district of Nepal, according to a news report.
In August 2017, Nepal’s parliament passed a law criminalizing a deep-rooted tradition called Chhaupadi which forces women to leave their homes and stay in a ‘menstruation hut’ during their period. However, this most recent death suggests little or no progress has been made in implementing the new law.
Parbati Budha was bitten twice on her finger by a venomous snake while banished during her period. There was no one nearby to take her to the hospital immediately after the snakebite as her parents and neighbors were far from the menstrual hut. As a result, she was deprived of the medical treatment that would have allowed her to survive.
This is a painful incident. Even more painful is the fact that that no one can say for sure that this death will be the last.
In January this year, 22-year-old Gauri Budha was found dead by her neighbors inside a menstrual shed. In July 2017, Tulasi Shahi, 19, was bitten twice by a venomous snake and died. On 18 November 2016, 21-year-old Dambara Upadhyay from Timilsen village was discovered dead in a hut while 15-year-old teenager Roshani Tiruwa of Gajra died on 17 December of the same year.
Exact figures are difficult to find as statistics are not well-maintained by the government, but it is believed that dozens of women die every year across Nepal in the name of tradition.
Generally, menstrual huts are constructed away from homes so that menstruating women are out of sight and unable to touch male members of households. Most menstrual huts are single-room buildings with small doors. Huts either have no windows or very small ones, and poor sanitation and ventilation.
As a result, women can die from suffocation or from snake or scorpion bites. During a visit to various districts in western Nepal, I spoke with many women and girls who shared their fears of being attacked by wild animals and snakes while isolated in menstrual huts.
Taboo and stigma surrounding menstruation is deep-rooted. In some parts of the country, menstruating girls are not allowed to eat with their family members, nor are they allowed to enter the kitchen. They are forbidden from touching male members of the family, as well as neighbors, cattle, and growing fruit and vegetables. Seclusion is practiced in its most extreme form in mid and far western regions of the country, where menstruating women are banished to sleep in a shed.
In my observation, there is not one single reason behind menstrual taboo and stigma. Instead, multiple factors have contributed to the continuity of this inhumane tradition.
The first reason I found for menstruating women following the practice is their fear that if they don’t, the Gods will be angry and will bring misfortune to their family. Another reason is fear of isolation from society. I don’t think any parents actually want their daughters to sleep in cow sheds, but they cannot stand against the tradition as they fear the isolation from society that would result.
The government should make a strong commitment to ending this inhumane practice of secluding menstruating women. The tradition is claiming lives of many women and girls, and it’s the responsibility of the government to provide more than just lip service to end all forms of discrimination against women and girls.
After hearing each news report on the death of a woman or girl in a menstrual shed, I ask myself: how many more women must die before social mindsets and attitudes change?
This question troubles me. The government must realize that the country cannot afford the cost of inaction. Sincere efforts from all concerned stakeholders are required to ensure a society where no woman is banished to sleep in a shed because of an unavoidable, natural process. The government should not remain indifferent to the pain and suffering the women of Nepal face while following the Chhaupadi ritual and facing its consequences.
Smashing taboos around menstruation is about upholding women’s rights and dignity. I disown the whole culture of menstrual restrictions, as I believe that no culture, religion or country has the right to dub a woman’s period a ‘sin’ or ‘impure’. Periods are natural. Banishment and seclusion of women for a natural biological process is nothing more than superstition. It’s time to debunk the myths surrounding menstruation to ensure that no woman should suffer again.
If not us, who? If not now, when?