Menstruation in Nepal has become synonymous with chhaupadi, the tradition of banishing women to cowsheds for five days during their periods. The practice is infamous in western Nepal — where another segregated woman died in Achham district this week — but the belief that a menstruating woman is dirty, impure and untouchable is pervasive country-wide.
Nepal is one among many countries globally to consider menstruation a taboo. The topic is spoken about in hush-hush tones and only among women who are on intimate terms — but one activist is fighting such attitudes.
“Menstruation is not private business, it is everyone’s business,” says Radha Paudel, who has been working to abolish the menstrual taboo for almost 40 years.
Communicating to remove menstrual taboo, Sewa Bhattarai
Nepal’s superwomen beat superstition, Aruna Uprety
Paudel started to speak publicly about menstruation at age 15, when she was studying to become a nurse, and quickly realised that the taboo was due to lack of education. She vowed to teach people what she was learning, and her parents were her first students.
During her childhood, Paudel had seen her elder sisters being mistreated by neighbours and other villages when they stayed in the cowshed during their periods. It scarred and scared her. Traumatised, the nine-year-old left her home in Chitwan to commit suicide because she did not want to live as a girl.
Paudel obviously failed to kill herself, but the young girl never stopped dreaming about being a man in a patriarchal society, where the odds were always against women. Now as a grown woman, she helps young girls accept and not be ashamed of the natural process.
“Out of 30 days, when 5 days of menstruation make no difference in the daily lives of women, that will be dignified menstruation,” says Paudel. She believes that excluding a woman from any daily activity amounts to destroying her dignity, whether it is barring her from a religious task or excluding her from a certain part of the house.
Paudel tells Nepali Times that upholding women’s dignity during menstruation should be activists’ priority, ahead of other issues like accessibility of sanitary products. The menstrual taboo, she argues, encourages men to be powerful and women to be powerless.
Two years ago, the Nepal government drafted a policy on dignified menstruation. This year, the Radha Paudel Foundation and its partners are taking the initiative to mark 8 December as the Day for Dignified Menstruation. It will also be marked globally, by friends and partners of the Global South Coalition for Dignified Menstruation. An international workshop is scheduled to take place in May, 2020.
Menstruation activism has created a global solidarity of sisterhood. One example is the 2019 Oscar-winning documentary Period. End of Sentence by Iranian-American Director Rayka Zehtabchi. It focuses on women in India who fight the stigma of menstruation by opening a sanitary pad manufacturing company. It is evident in the film that their voices are being heard and the veil of ignorance is ripping apart.
Bloody period, Nepali Times
Blood sisters, Sangita Thebe-Limbu
But Paudel thinks the documentary’s approach is insufficient. “It talks only about a sanitary pad company and doesn’t talks about dignity.” Likewise, she does not support the idea of period poverty, labelling it a foreign concept: “It focuses on accessibility of sanitary products but not the taboo attached to them. Distributing pads without providing this information promotes the idea that menstrual blood is dirty and must be hidden, which creates a negative impression.”