Their songs from the forest

Oligaun is an hour by foot from the district capital at Mangalsen of Achham. It is less remote than most villages and is made up of mixed families of Chhetris, Pariyar and Mijar. Mangala Nepal Rastriya Madhyamik Vidhyalaya offers technical education, and is he only one of its kind in Achham. Most households at least one member – mostly the men – working in India. Many young people aspire to leave. It is common for girls to marry by 16 even though the legal age of marriage for girls is 18 with parental consent and 20 on their own. Chhaupadi was outlawed in 2005 and criminalised since August 2018. Oligaun has been declared Chhaupadi-free by local authorities, but the tradition persists. All photos: UMA BISTA

Photographer Uma Bista’s exhibition Our Songs from the Forest is a gentle invitation into the remote mountains of Achham where we meet young women coming of age in a fast-changing society.

The women are learning to navigate superstition and ingrained patriarchy in their community while balancing it alongside new aspirations of equality. They are asking questions, and pushing boundaries.

Tejana Khanal– 18 (left) Tejana Khanal from Mangalsen is 18 years old. She is waiting for her Grade 10 results. Her brother is a shaman, so out of the fear of touching her brother, she and her sister-in-law go to the cattle shed when they menstruate where they are not allowed to touch milk or fruits. Sometimes Jetana touches fruit trees just to see if they go barren. Still, Tejana believes in her religion and culture and is afraid to break the rule of Chhaupadi. Manisha Nath--16 (right) Manisha Nath is 16 and has finished her Grade 10 exams and now wants to study health. She thinks she is fortunate not to have ever been to a shed during menstruation. Manisha and her sister live inside their home and work even when they menstruate. Their father eats the food they cook. When Manisha sees her friends and neighbours go to the cattle shed, she gets upset because of the horrible things that happen to them.

Women are considered impure during menstruation, and even though the practice of being banished to the cowshed during their periods is now outlawed and is gradually fading away, it is still happens. These brave women are challenging societal norms, and trying to speak against the superstition that perpetuates the practice.

Many women still believe that the gods are angered if they do not isolate themselves in the outhouses every month. They are held responsible for ills that might befall the family, especially the menfolk, if they break the rules.

Gita Mijar - 16. Gita Mijar is in Grade 9. Before and after school, she gathers fodder for the family livestock works in the fields and in between does other household work. During menstruation, Gita usually goes to the cattle shed. She wakes up early at 3 or 4AM, bathes, gathers fodder and firewood before going to school. Once, when she got her periods, Gita decided to not tell anyone. She cooked, she served food to the people who had come to work in the fields. She gave her elderly neighbour food and water with her own hands. She had heard the old woman say that a person touched by a menstruating woman would go insane. Gita did not tell anyone. She kept an eye on the woman to see if she would go mad, but she did not. Gita was then convinced that Chhaupadi was superstition. Still, she feels compelled to follow the rules. Her friends and neighbors have been talking about the need to break this tradition, but they all e continue to go to the cattle shed.

Despite new laws that criminalise these practices, the fear runs deep: fear of angering the gods, fear of being labeled immoral, fear of being ostracised by the community, fear of change. Can such fears be replaced by the fear of legal consequences? Will destroying the sheds free us of the tradition associated with them?

Uma Bista takes us into the forests around Oligaun, where the young women seek freedom from the inequality they face daily and the shame they are forced to endure every month. In the forest, the skies are open, the air is free and they feel no fear. They can sing and laugh as loudly as they wish.

Our Songs from the Forest

Till 10  April

Chhaya Centre

Thamel 11AM-7PM

(01 )5543501 (

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