16-year-old Kamala holds her baby boy, in her family’s “Chhaupadi Pratha” shelter, a squat crawlspace under the home where the women of the household sleep during their periods, in Mangalsen town, Achham, Nepal, December 9, 2012. Kamala was raped by a neighbor and family acquaintance while alone in the shelter and became pregnant. She is trying to track down the rapist, who fled the country, to give him the baby, who she cannot afford to care for.
Is it the festive season?
Were you eagerly waiting to celebrate Dashain with family and friends?
And Tihar and Teej?
Yes and yes
Are you on your period?
Well, then how about instead of receiving blessings and gifts and enjoying the festival without the care of the world you go, sit in a room isolated from everyone else, not allowed to participate in any rituals and ceremony and must be careful about every step you take, anything you eat and everything you touch for the rest 5-7 days.
Seems too much?
Well then let me tell you, this is the present condition of girls and women living in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal that is the epitome of modernization and development with rapidly growing education quality and the people moving forward in many new epistemological formations.
Then what about other less developed cities and places in Nepal?
Not surprisingly, in many areas, particularly underdeveloped mountainous regions and mid-or-far western regions of Nepal there is an ingrained cultural practice of isolating girls and women from their home to makeshift sheds and huts temporarily during their menstruation period. This tradition is known as Chhaupadi Pratha. “Chhau” meaning menstruation and “padi“ meaning shed or hut.
The women are isolated from daily household activities, social events, or other rituals and are refrained from touching livestock, plant, kitchen tools, and drinking water source. They are denied access to water taps and forbade from using toilets and taking baths at home, which forces them to use contaminated water sources and spend their nights in dirty and unsafe conditions.
Menstruation is considered a sign of stigma and sin due to the belief that menstruating women can cause bad luck like illness in the family or crop failure. The perception of it being impure is so steeped in Nepali culture and tradition that a yearly festival called Rishi Panchami is observed around the month of Bhadra when all the menstruating females pray and fast for the day and purify themselves with water for all the “sins” they committed while menstruating.
So only menstruating girls are expected to perform Chhaupadi, one might think, right?
Chhau is considered to be of two types, Minor Chhau (monthly menstruation) and Major Chhau. While the monthly menstruation lasts for 4-5 days, the Major Chau lasts up to 14 days and this “Pratha” is performed after childbirth and during menarche. According to custom, women should not be given dairy products like milk or ghee while they are menstruating or pregnant, and should only eat flat-bread (roti) with salt.
In winter, temperatures at night drop below the freezing point. Many women and young girls suffer, and even die, from health problems caused by sleeping in old and dirty conditions. Exposure, high vulnerability to wild animals and snakebites, and higher risks of rape due to isolation are just a few dangers faced by women practicing Chhaupadi.
On the last day, they are allowed to return home. However, even on the last day, they are not permitted to touch the public water sources before cleaning their clothes in “Chhaupadi Dhara”, a separate well or small rivulet near the village.
Is nobody questioning the rationale behind the tradition?
Sure some are. Chhaupadi has been condemned by the human rights organization and many institutions have been providing related information and education to various parts of Nepal. It was outlawed by Nepal Supreme Court in 2005. But later on, a 2010 government study found out that 19% of Nepali women practiced Chhaupadi but the figure was nearly 50% in the mid and far west of the country. Without any mechanism to enforce the rule, Chhaupadi has proved hard to stamp out completely.
In the wake of three highly publicized deaths within ten months among women and girls practicing Chhaupadi, the Nepali Parliament enacted a new law on 9 Aug 2017 criminalizing Chhaupadi Pratha.
But it continued to flourish, predominantly in Nepal’s mid-and far-western regions and as late as the year 2017, 60% of people in the western region didn’t even know the practice was illegal.
Then why is the tradition still prevailing when it has been considered a criminal act?
Banning the practice and enacting a new law criminalizing Chhaupadi does validate the fact that it is a criminal act/offense, but it doesn’t ensure that the people will stop doing it.
Furthermore acting upon the tradition isn’t in any way enough when the fear of consequences for breaking menstrual taboos retain a tight grip among the girls and woman.
In the developed cities, people who are menstruating do stay at home, cook food, and visit places but deep down high percentage of women and girls are still hesitant to go to temples and monuments or touch some sacred items. So it’s not completely about getting less education or information but how deep the fear of myths are rooted inside one’s head and how courageous we are to make a judgment between old harmful tradition and our human rights.
It seems like not only the physical but the mental agony that comes while performing Chhaupadi has become a habitual pain for a woman now, Isn’t that a bitter truth?
“I wish I hadn’t had my period”. I have repeated this line every time I had my menses, each month for the last couple of years. Only the physical pain from the period is excruciating enough to lay on a bed curled up and dare not to move an inch. And with the mental harm from practices like Chhaupadi, the feelings of abandonment, insecurity, guilt, and humiliation for being impure and untouchable adds up. The extreme and severe consequence of this on psychological health is of great distress and concern.
But aren’t some of the myths right? What about “Any form of physical activity can disturb the menstrual flow”? I think it’s true
No, it’s not. You believe it’s true because menstruation cramp hurts like hell which makes us think that we shouldn’t move at all. But the problem is we believe in them so deeply that we have never allowed ourselves to search about how to ease the pain and learn that the myth is a half-truth despite us getting a quality education. And the same goes for all the other myths as well.
So educated or not but the beliefs in these strict guidelines that should be followed during period and all the other myths are continuing in the society. Why you ask?
We are all aware of the answer. Unawareness. Chhaupadi still has its root deep because whenever the topic rises only the part where she menstruates is spoken about.
But the root cause is not only the lack of education but the awareness of one’s body. Woman are demanded to fulfill their role as a mother, yet the very bodily function that allows this phenomenon of motherhood is condemned impure. Does this seem wildly unfair or stupidly contradictory?
However, the positive change can still pace up when education is provided not only to young girls and women but to everyone around them. Discussion and awareness about puberty and the changes that take place on every being have long been a neglected issue in Nepal so there must be an increasing recognition and it should be included in the research, programming education, and health products. Fifteen years since the first boycott of Chhaupadi and still we are in dire need of an effective approach to improving the situation.
Ongoing forward we must remember “ Gender equality cannot prevail while Chaupadi still exists”.