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In Nepal, tradition remains stronger than law in ostracising women

Image credit: Philippe Leroyer (Creative Commons: Flickr)

For many young girls around the world, menstruation is an important developmental milestone. But for many girls in Nepal, getting their periods also begins the process of social ostracisation through a practice called Chhaupadi.

The tradition of Chhaupadi can be traced back to centuries old practices and taboos over menstruation in Hinduism. The taboo means women are considered impure and bearers of bad luck while menstruating. According to a 2011 United Nations report, "some in the far West (of Nepal) still believe that a God or Goddess may be angered if the practice is violated, which could result in a shorter life, the death of livestock or destruction of crops". With its roots in religious beliefs, the tradition became a widespread cultural practice across parts of Nepal.

Even today, high rates of illiteracy and poverty, low rates of economic development and gender inequality continue to characterise parts of western Nepal. Women and girls are often banished from their family homes while menstruating. During Chhaupadi, menstruating women are forbidden from participating in a range of activities, including touching food, entering the kitchen, using communal water sources, entering temples, or touching religious statues, cattle, and men. In some parts of Nepal, girls are also forbidden from reading, writing or touching books while menstruating. Apart from being unable to carry out such activities, women are required to leave their homes and live in Chhaupadi, or menstruation huts. These structures are often closet-size huts made of mud or rock, located outside their houses. Most huts are windowless and have no ventilation. During the Himalayan winters, women often burn wood or fire to keep themselves warm. As a result, they often become vulnerable to outside elements and extreme temperatures.

Chhaupadi was outlawed in 2005 and criminalised in 2017, after a series of high-profile deaths because of women being forced to live in menstruation huts. Despite being criminalised, many villages in Nepal continue to practice it. In 2010, an 11-year-old girl died from diarrhea and dehydration after being forced to live in a menstruation hut. In 2016, two young women died from smoke inhalation and suffocation. In 2017, a 19-year old girl died from a snake bite while living in a cow shed that was being used as a menstruation hut. In 2019 alone, a 35-year-old woman and her sons died of smoke inhalation while living in their menstrual hut, while in February 2019, 21-year old Parwati Bogati also died from similar causes.

Women’s right activists say Bogati's death demonstrates the continued and long-standing stigma that isolated women and girls from Nepalese society. The deaths also highlight the dangers stemming from the practice, ranging from death to cases of violence, sexual assault, and other health complications. Since parts of Nepal also banish women for up to 10 days after childbirth, the risk of infant and maternal deaths also rises significantly.

Women’s ostracisation based on a normal bodily function and the stigma associated with menstruation continues to have serious implications for their well-being, sometimes leading to their death. The social pressure or guilt also hampers their development as equal members of Nepalese society. According to a 2011 bulletin by the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator’s Office, Chhaupadi “challenges fundamental human rights in that it promotes discrimination and increases vulnerability”. The report states that as Nepal is party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), it is important for them to work towards “eliminating prejudices and customary practices based on the idea of inferiority of women or on stereotyped roles for women”. The 2005 Supreme Court ruling also found the practice of Chhaupadi to be a human rights violation. However, religious beliefs associated with the tradition means that such practices continue to have a tight grip across parts of Nepalese society. According to Rewati Raman Bhandari, former lawmaker and draftee of the measure criminalising Chhaupadi, “the push to eradicate the practice — from villagers, the police and local politicians — was still far too muted”. In Nepal, “tradition is stronger than the law,” he added.

The practice of Chhaupadi speaks to a range of complex issue. The taboo goes beyond the physical banishment of women and highlights how religious and cultural ideas about impurity continue to humiliate women. Apart from violating women's rights, such practices have serious consequences for women’s ability to access health and education services for their development and well-being. Nepali writer and menstrual rights activist Radha Paudel adds that currently, the “law speaks about the visible things only: the banishing of women to a shed outside”. Paudal suggests that “less dangerous” forms of menstrual restrictions, such as prohibitions around daily activities are also key instigators of gender inequality, stigma, and discrimination. As a result, broadening the definition of Chhaupadi to include such discriminatory practices is critical for challenging traditional ideas about menstruation. Along with criminalising such practices, conversations about menstruation and the Chhaupadi in school curriculums are important. These can “enable students to know that menstruation is a natural process” and that “Chhaupadi is a harmful, dangerous practice”.

It is only when such traditions and superstition, deeply rooted in parts of Nepal, are challenged that true progress can be made.

Nishtha Sharma is an honours student in American Studies at the University of Sydney.

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