Chhaupadai and women: tradition vs. reality?
– Women and menstruation in Nepal
Author: Anuska Joshi (UNU-IAS)
For a process as natural as menstruation, women in some rural areas in Nepal are still losing their lives today, not because of health complications but because of a timeless tradition that shuns them as ‘impure’ and requires them to segregate themselves and live in a “Period Hut” during the entirety of their menstruation. This is the tradition called ‘Chhaupadi’.
The ‘Period Hut’ is usually a shack or a shed like dwelling, and cattle sheds are often used for this purpose. The prevalence of this practice is usually reported in the western part of Nepal. The houses have at least one such hut, where the girl is required to stay when she has her periods. These huts lack basic amenities and sanitation needs but are also dangerous since they are in secluded areas near forests and fields, and prone to wildlife attacks. Various researches (Amatya, P. et al; Kadariya; S. et al, Parajuli et al, Parker, S., & Standing, K; Ranabhat C. et al) have pointed out prevalence of such tradition and the dangers of not only lack of personal hygiene, but also the threat of snake bites, suffocation during winter, as well as rape. Making things worse is another tradition of regarding water as pure and banning the women from touching community water sources, making it harder for the women to maintain their hygiene. The researchers mention the need for an appropriate strategy against the Chhaupadi Tradition.
Photo Credit: My Republica
As recently as this month, February 2019, there have been reported cases of young girls dying in the small windowless huts due to suffocation after lighting fires to keep themselves warm (The Himalayan Times, My Republica, The Guardian). Following the tragic incidences, a parliamentary team visited Bajura, one of the districts of Nepal, where some of the recent deaths occurred, and suggested the use of police administration to monitor and take action on people practicing the tradition as well as forcing it on the community. But while even the government has already put a ban on the tradition since 2005, the prevalence is still shown with the recent incidences of death. So, the big question is why is it not working? Is it the mindset? Is it that the news of ban is not reaching the people? Incidences like these questions the relevance of existing policies and their capability of uprooting a deeply rooted value set. In some particular cases, girls who rebelled against the practice have been pressurized and shunned by their community by blaming them for every natural disaster and unfortunate situation as a misfortune brought on by their disobedience, forcing them to go back to the period hut again.
A survey conducted by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in 2010 showed that one in five women follow the Chhaupadi tradition. Since the tradition has been followed since centuries, there is still the deep-seated belief that they would anger the gods bringing in misfortunes to the community if they fight against the tradition. This comes from the superstition that women and girls during their menstrual cycle are impure. That they would offend the gods if they stayed at home. That they would be making the home impure. The superstition goes as far as claiming that water would dry up if menstruating girl touched it, crop would fail if the girl touched it and someone would fall sick if they touched them. In some areas where the authorities have demolished the ‘huts’, the menstruating women have been shifted to be secluded in another room or another floor. An article from Independent also mentioned that demolishing the ‘period huts’ has sometimes made things worse as people shifted the girls to caves or jungles. The authors also highlight the fact that this tradition is not just about the segregation, but the psychological stigma a girl has to go through to believe she is impure, that the normal process of menstruation is a curse (Parker & Standing, 2019). Add to it the trauma before the period itself, of the prospect of spending cold, uncomfortable nights in an unsafe place. For it seems that her touch that would bring misfortune does not count when she is raped, which is often the case when she is isolated and vulnerable.
A law that criminalized the practice was introduced again in August 2017, after the ban that took place in 2005. Since January 2019, the government has decided to cut off governmental facilities to the people practicing the Chhaupadi tradition, and also introduced subsequent awareness raising programs to aware the people of the reality of the natural process taking place in their bodies. Awareness campaigns and activities are also conducted by other national and international organizations. As it is local influencers who can work towards changing mindset, it is important for these activities to include them as key personnel. Now the question is the efficiency of the implemented changes and programs. Chhaupadi is not the only practice shunning menstruation. Most women and girls in the country are denied access to temples and functions while menstruating. While Chhaupadi now is a seen issue, some discriminations remain unseen.