The practice of chhaupadi in which women in western Nepal are banished to cow sheds during their periods grabs a lot of media attention within Nepal and internationally, eclipsing the much more widespread and entrenched menstrual restrictions in the rest of Nepal.
As cruel and inhumane as chhaupadi is, journalistic coverage as usual tends to be event-focused, headlining only deaths due to suffocation, snakebites or exposure. There is little context to explain that the practice is now much less widespread as literacy improves, and after it was outlawed.
As public health specialist Aruna Uprety reports from Accham in this issue, young women and mothers across western Nepal are now defying this superstition. But that is not ‘newsy’ enough for the international media.
To be sure, it is a travesty that young women are still dying because they are forced to fend for themselves in the flimsy huts, where some fall prey to the cold, infections, wild animals, or rapists. Chhaupadi is cruel and an egregious violation of the human rights of women, perpetuated by conservative societal norms.
Read also: Nepal’s superwomen beat superstition, Aruna Upreti
Communicating to remove menstrual taboo, Sewa Bhattarai
But while women in western Nepal are cast out to spend four days every month in sheds, in other parts of Nepal they are confined to isolation in separate rooms. They are not allowed to cook or eat in the kitchen, cannot touch taps, and are supposed to keep off places of worship. These are not poor and illiterate women in rural Nepal, but college graduates, upper and middle class urban women in Kathmandu, and even the Nepali diaspora.
Many women believe the superstition about menstrual ostracisation and willingly follow the practice, thinking crops will wither, livestock will die, cows will not give milk, or that their fathers and brothers will die if they ‘pollute’ them during their periods. Festivals like Rishi Panchami reinforce these beliefs, where women apologise for all the ‘sins’ they many have committed, even unintentionally, during menstruation.
Women are also excluded from festivals and auspicious occasions, forced to find distant water sources for washing, and left out of schools and work. More damaging is the emotional toll: women feel humiliated and dehumanised as they grow up feeling powerless from a young age.
Writer and menstruation activist Radha Paudel in her new book released this week, Apavitra Ragat (Impure Blood), argues that all menstrual restrictions are human rights violations, not just chhaupadi. She says the demolition of chhaupadi huts and the distribution of sanitary pads, while being important interventions, do not address the continuing isolation of women during their periods, and their feelings of inferiority that it perpetuates.
Removing menstrual shame, Clara Hare-Grogg
Periods of banishment, Subeksha Poudel
Paudel suggests that the focus should be shifted to a more holistic advocacy where all members of society accept that menstruation is not impure. For that, communication and education are key, and the campaigns must include men, as well as school teachers, health workers, faith healers and community leaders.
Positive stories also need more coverage because not everything about menstruation is regressive in Nepal. Over the years, increasing numbers of women have started questioning this tradition, and have proactively and collectively broken the taboo. Education has brought about dramatic change, spreading knowledge among students and their parents about the biological reasons for menstrual blood.
The accounts of women who suffer in cow sheds are tragic, but much more compelling are the brave stories of those that have countered the practice in Nepal’s most conservative communities. They prove that reform is possible, and can be brought about by the combined strength of many ordinary women fighting for justice and rights for themselves and their children. They show that courageous progressive women exist in the same places where the taboo is strongest, and where those extreme cases of deaths and despair are reported.
Ultimately, dignified menstruation for women all over Nepal should focus not just on hygiene and safety through sanitary pads and alternatives to chhaupadi huts, but on making sure that women are not shamed by menstruation and are free to participate in any activity, whether or not it is ‘that time of month’.
Read also: Pad Power, Ziyu Lin
Stereotyping women as victims, Radha Adhikari and Jeevan Sharma