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?

Child Marriage: Enough is Enough

Child marriage remains one of the most horrific human rights violations that exists today. It is estimated that globally 14 million girls are married off before the age of 18, robbing them of their childhood and leaving them vulnerable to violence, poverty, domestic slavery, sexual assault and HIV/AIDS. Child marriage is a human rights violation that cuts across countries, cultures, religions and ethnicities.

The recent news coverage of the 8-year-old girl who was married off to a 40-year-old man in Yemen, poignantly highlights the desperate need to outlaw child marriage. After their wedding night, the 8-year-old girl – identified as “Rawan” – died from torn genitals and severe bleeding in the northwest city of Hardh. According to media accounts, the fatal injuries were incurred through sexual intercourse. Let me emphasize that it was NOT sexual intercourse. It was rape and it should be clearly understood as so.  Rawan’s tragic story is sadly not unique and millions of girls die every year from injuries incurred from sexual violence.

Image Courtesy of Gerry & Bonni on Flickr (Creative Commons)
Image Courtesy of Gerry & Bonni on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Furthermore, as a result of child marriage, these girls are at far greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Yemen has a high maternal mortality rate of 370 deaths per 100,000 live births. Reproductive health studies show that young women face greater risks in pregnancy than older women, including life-threatening obstructed labour due to adolescents’ smaller pelvises. The shortage of prenatal and postnatal healthcare services, especially in Yemen’s rural areas, place girls’ and women’s lives at risk. An overwhelming majority of Yemeni women still deliver at home, often without the assistance of a skilled birth attendant capable of handling childbirth emergencies. Girls who marry young often have insufficient information on family planning or worse, none at all. As young wives they find it difficult to assert themselves against older husbands to negotiate family planning methods.

Human Rights Watch reports that 14% of girls in Yemen are married before age 15, with 82% married before age 18. Child marriage is in fact legal in Yemen; however, in light of the recent cases and international media attention, Yemen Parliamentarians are calling for new laws which ban child marriage, set the minimum age for marriage at 18 ,and implement strategic measures to effectively enact the law. Speaking in an interview with CNN, Hooria Mashhour, Yemen’s human rights minister stated,

Many child marriages take place every year in Yemen. It’s time to end this practice.”

In order to fully eliminate child marriage, awareness raising of the negative impacts of this human rights violation must be conducted. There are a magnitude of elements that contribute to child marriage including lack of awareness and understanding. One father who married off his young daughter spoke to Human Rights Watch and declared that if he knew then what he knows now he would never have married off his daughter.

In many cases, the reality of poverty plays a big role in the decision to marry off a daughter. Here are a few examples of how poverty impacts child marriage:

  • Marrying a girl child means one less family member to feed, clothe and educate.
  • The bride’s family receives a hefty dowdy/bride price for a young girl, or in those instances where the bride’s family pays the groom a dowry, they often have to pay less money if the bride is young and uneducated. Sometimes the daughters are actually sold to pay off debts.

Another huge determinant of child marriage is tradition. Child marriage is a traditional practice in many countries and cultures around the world, and breaking tradition can alienate families from the rest of the community. However in the words of Graca Machel, member of The Elders and a major contributor to the founding of Girls Not Brides,

Traditions are made by us – and we can decide to change them. We should be respectful but we must also have the courage to stop harmful practices that impoverish girls, women and their communities.”

One 11 year old Yemeni girl decided to break away from tradition and challenged her own parents when they arranged for her to be married to an older man. Nada al-Ahdal caught the attention of the world when she uploaded a three minute video on YouTube after she escaped from your family and took refuge at her uncle’s house.

The world needs more Nada al-Ahdal’s but can we really leave eight, nine, ten, and eleven-year-olds to defend themselves? Nada is one of the rare and lucky girls’ who successfully avoided child marriage but there are millions who are not so lucky. Hence, we need to make a change and advocate for child marriage to be fully outlawed and recognised as a human rights violation. Thousands of NGOs, human rights defenders, women and girls have been advocating to end child marriage for years and, although change will not come over night, we must keep on and remember the Rawan’s of the world.

Take Action:

Girls Not Brides

Every Woman Every Child

Other Useful Websites:

Human Rights Watch

UNFPA