Nepalese Women are Dying in the Name of Tradition

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?

Menstrual Hygiene Explored: Dignity

Written by Guest Blogger Aditi Sharma, Founder and Chair of Kalyani 

This blog is part of Irise International’s #12DaysofChristmas Campaign.

Chhaupadi – The curse of menstruation

A woman died in the August floods in the far western region of Nepal this year – simply because she was menstruating. It may sound archaic and unreal but these kinds of incidents are not uncommon in mid and far west Nepal. Unfortunately, I have no reference for this piece of information. After hearing about it in the local radio news, I looked everywhere on the net and newspapers to see if anyone else reported the same. There was nothing. So did it not happen? Was it not worth making then news? Or is it just an example of how women are valued in the far western villages of Nepal?

Chhaupadi goth destroyed by the Moaists in efforts to abolish the tradition; Photo c/o Aditi Sharma
Chhaupadi goth destroyed by the Moaists in efforts to abolish the tradition; Photo c/o Aditi Sharma

According to the radio, the woman had been banished out of her house to the cow-sheds because she was menstruating, as part of an age old social tradition called ‘Chhaupadi Pratha’, while her entire family was well-sheltered at home. Chhuapadi Pratha is still widely practiced in the far-western region of Nepal where women are banished from their homes to the sheds during their monthly periods or childbirth. The sheds that women are made to live in, for 4-5 days during their regular menstruation and 11-15 days during childbirth, are made of mud, straw and grass. They are highly unhygienic, unventilated, unsafe, cold, dark and uncomfortable as they are hardly large enough to fit a grown adult. Menstruating women are considered untouchables and impure during this time. It is believed to be a bad omen for the menstruating women’s families and cattle if they live at home instead of the sheds. During a time when women need the most amount of care, they are not only deprived of nutritious food but are also forbidden to drink milk or pick fruits as it could cause milk-giving cows or fruit-bearing trees to die. Every year many women die in the Chhaupadi sheds due to hypothermia, pneumonia, snake bites, asphyxiation and even rape. Although, these incidences are reported in the news, there is a lack of proper statistics as to how many women are affected by the tradition of Chhaupadi.

The ordeal of menstruating girls doesn’t end there. Villagers reportedly accuse them of being possessed by evil spirits and extreme measures are taken by the local traditional healers, ‘jhakris’, where they allegedly beat girls in front of other villagers and use other forms of physical and verbal abuse.

A Chhaupadi goth(shed) in Accham district in Far Western Nepal; c/o Aditi Sharma
A Chhaupadi goth(shed) in Accham district in Far Western Nepal; c/o Aditi Sharma

All human rights derive from dignity and yet ‘dignity’ for women in these areas is a far-fetched idea. Humiliation and shame have always been a part of their lives. Being treated as bad luck and untouchables leave girls with little or no self-esteem. The position of women is clear from this video clip on Chhaupadi which shows a man from far west Nepal likening the women of the village to dirty cattle. Most women, unfortunately, have resigned themselves to this tradition and very few try to defend their right to equality, proper care and dignity.

Although Chhaupadi was declared illegal by the Government of Nepal in 2005, it is still openly and widely practiced almost all around the far west region and in some parts of the mid west region. Since the tradition has been around for centuries, it is deeply ingrained in society. There have been many campaigns against the tradition by I/NGOs and slowly some villages have abolished the tradition completely. However, government regulations and campaign efforts by I/NGOs are not enough. The most effective way to completely abolish Chhaupadi tradition is to educate young girls and boys, their parents and religious and other leaders at the community level about menstruation as a natural process rather than a taboo.

Want to know more about Chhaupadi Pratha? Watch this informative video from Al Jazeera:

Author's PhotoAditi Sharma has an MHP from the University of Sheffield. As part of her degree she completed a work related research placement with Irise International where she conducted a narrative review to explore the health and social impacts of menstrual hygiene in Nepal. She is currently working as a Research Associate for Green Tara Nepal (GTN) in association with the University of Sheffield in the Health Promotion Project. She is also the project lead for the Menstrual Hygiene Management Project run by GTN in Nawalparasi district of Nepal. She is also the founder and Chair of Kalyani – a recently established NGO that aims to empower rural Nepali women through sustainable livelihoods.

Cover image: Traditional healer with young girl; Photo c/o WaterAid