Chhaupadi – A taboo subject
For those unaware, chhaupadi is a tradition that prohibits Hindu women and girls from participating in normal activities while menstruating. Women are considered impure during this time and is born out of ignorance and superstition.
Based on the myth that Indra, the Hindu King of the Gods, created menstruation as a means to distribute a cure. As strange as it might seem in the 21st century many still believe that if a menstruating woman touches a tree then it will not bear fruit, if she drinks milk the cow will cease to produce it and if she touches a man he will become ill. It is even believed that if she reads a book then the goddess of education will become angry.
These are still strongly held beliefs and the tradition starts with an adolescent girl’s first menstrual cycle. They will be banished, to what is little more than a shed for up to fourteen days, from then on, every girl and woman must spend the duration of each monthly period in this shed until they reach the menopause. In addition, women who have just given birth must stay in the same shed for up to 2 weeks. These ‘menstruation huts’ are furnished sparsely with the women and girls sleeping on the floor with only a rug for warmth.
Imagine if you will, that during your cycle you had to remain isolated from your family, forbidden from entering homes, kitchens, schools and temples. Not able to have any physical contact, food and water passed to you in such a way as to prevent touching. During this time much of your staple diet will be denied you, no milk, yoghurt, butter and meat for fear that your impurity will make the cow ill. Your typical diet during menstruation would be dried food, pulses, meat and dairy to make up for the lost nourishment. Depriving women of such foods can lead to serious illness and in some cases even death. You’re excluded from community water sources making daily functions like bathing and washing clothes impossible. But despite the social isolation you will still be expected to work, often in the fields, returning to the shed and your meagre rations once the work is done.
It is not difficult to imagine the huge impact these restrictions have on a victim of chhaupadi. Affecting education, missing at least a week of school per month, let alone their personal growth and feeling of self-worth. Girls are made to feel less than their male counterparts and grow up to live with a deep feeling of inferiority and humiliation.
The women and girls who suffer this in silence are exposed to huge health risks. Being left outside to the elements and the extremes of temperature means the risk of things such a pneumonia is high; asphyxiation is all too common as women start fires in the huts in an effort to keep warm. They are also vulnerable to attacks from snakes and scorpions and sadly there are many cases of rape while left isolated.
Because these practices are carried out in the far and mid-western regions of Nepal it is impossible to gauge exact numbers, but we do know a number of deaths can be directly related to the practice of chhaupadi. All these cases are sad because of course they are all too preventable and include an 11-year-old girl who died in January 2010 stemming from diarrhea and dehydration while being kept in a menstruation hut. Both her family and neighbors refused to bring her to the hospital because they believed that they would become impure should they touch her.
More recently in January 2019 a 35-year-old Nepali mother and her sons aged 9 and 12, died of smoke inhalation while living in their menstrual hut. In February of 2019 a 21-year died from suffocation and smoke inhalation. There are many more cases we could quote before we ask ourselves how many the authorities do not hear about.
While Chhaupadi was outlawed by the Supreme Court of Nepal in 2005 the most recent deaths are proof enough that tradition has been slow to change. In a further effort to end chhaupadi in2017 a law was passed that would punish people who force women into exile during menstruating with up to three months in jail no cases had been filed against those forcing the practice during 2018.
The reason that chhaupadi is so difficult to tackle is that tradition and belief run very deeply through the society that practices it. There is a genuine fear that should they stop the gods will be angry. They believe that the government has no right to interfere with their religious practices and have reacted angrily to people who have attempted to report the continued use of chhaupadi to the authorities.
While most prevalent in the West of Nepal there is strong evidence to show that this is still practiced in cities such as Kathmandu.
At LWH we are attempting to put an end to this practice through education, awareness and empowerment. We can directly help the girls and women who still suffer this humiliation by ensuring they have safe and reliable sanitary products. Women are often forced to use rags that lead to infection and worse. LWH, Local Women’s Handicrafts, developed reusable, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal sanitary pads from a fabric that is both waterproof and biodegradable so far we have managed to help 6000 women with this project but around 13 million women still need our help!
If you feel you would like to help the girls and women in this awful situation then you can donate one, or several, sanitary pad kits on our website at www.lwhnepal.com. By virtue of this kind gesture you are giving one or several Nepali women the chance to comfortably go through their period and you are giving work to LWH that helps lift women who have been marginalized and exploited, many of whom have suffered the humiliation of chhaupadi first hand. If you cannot donate, then please consider sharing this story with others.
Thank you on behalf of LWH and all the girls and women of Nepal