Babita Marik's son peeps through the bamboo wall. Bamboos are essential part of Mariks' lives.

Chhaupadi is a social practice followed by the Hindu women in mid and far western part of Nepal during the menstruation; when they are isolated in a small hut nearby their residence. They are not allowed to practice any normal family activities; even are restricted to go to schools, temples, and kitchen, cannot consume milk products and touch or talk to men. In 2005, Chhaupadi was outlawed by the Supreme Court. In August 2017, again the government banned the practice of Chhaupadi and deemed it a crime for the second time, asserting jail sentence for three months or a fine of Rs 3,000 for anyone (individual, family, or the community) found forcing women to follow the custom. Yet the practice still continues in the western and far western regions of Nepal. While it is against the law, women are still dying and are still being compelled to follow this tradition. This scourge of Nepali society has been going on for a very long period of time and thus is difficult to stop easily and it takes a lot of effort to change the mentality of the people to stop practicing it.

A group of research team was sent to Bajura after the unfortunate death of a mother and her two sons inside a chhau shed on January 8. Lawmaker Ganga Chaudhary said that they had directed the police administration to take action against those who were found practicing chhaupadi and forcing others to do so. MP Bimala Nepali said, “Dismantling chhau shed would not solve the problem, people must change their mentality.”[1] The only way to put an end to this practice is through mass awareness and education at different levels and communities.

The practice of Chhaupadi has affected women mentally, physically, as well as emotionally. They have to spend five days inside a chhau or a cattle shed and as a result, they have to face many complications regarding their mental and physical health, and security. Inside the chhau sheds, they are forced to bear extreme temperatures in both winters and summers. Some of the experiences recounted by the women are agonizing. Recently it was reported in Kathmandu post, Bimala Bohara who is 28 now mentioned that she has been spending five days a month inside a shed every single time she has had her menstruation since her early teens. Bohara shared that the worst aspect of Chhaupadi is practicing the custom in the cold when the temperature plummets and it is almost impossible to fall asleep inside the shed. “We can’t even build a fire inside because the shed gets filled with smoke, and then it becomes suffocating,” said Bohara, who was on the third day of her monthly period in a rural village in Bajhang.[2]  Last week, 21-year-old Parwati Bogati of Purbichauki Rural Municipality-5, who was sleeping alone in a secluded shed, died of suffocation. Bogati had lit a fire to keep herself warm on a rainy Wednesday night.[3]
Menstruating women are not allowed to wear warm clothes or use thick blankets as they it is difficult for them to wash it afterwards as they cannot touch the water sources and also that the women are deemed to be impure.. The menstruating women have to use different water sources for Chhaupadi use only, and these water sources are usually far from their place, thus creating greater inconvenience.

Chhaupadi also impacts women psychosocially. Isolation from family and social exclusion leads to depression and low self-esteem. This practice also puts girls and women at the risk of rape and sexual violence. Last July, a 15-year-old girl in Barahatal Rural Municipality-6 was gang-raped in her Chhaupadi shed.[4]

Most of the women go through health problems due to lack of sanitation and limited quantity of food. Of the women surveyed by Lakshmi Raj Joshi, a PhD scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi, India, for the study “Socio-cultural Violence against Women in the Far-Western Region of Nepal”, published in 2015, 68.18 percent of women said that they had experienced excessive bleeding while in their goth; 52.27 percent had suffered reproductive tract infection; 34 percent had pneumonia and body aches; 17 percent had suffered a prolapsed uterus (as a consequence of having to do heavy labor despite the lack of a nutritious diet and adequate rest); and 11.36 percent had suffered anemia.[5]  37.9% of the girls and women were not allowed to eat foods such as milk and dairy products.[6] Moreover, women hesitate to share their health problems within themselves also due to shame and lack of adequate knowledge on sexual, reproductive, and sanitary health.  Most of them cannot open up about their health complications to the doctors because of the fear of disclosing their health issues in public. For example, (The Kathmandu Post) Naumati says she is embarrassed to talk about her health problem because it is too personal. She mentioned, “People at the health post in my village are familiar with all the villagers. I hesitate talking to health post workers because if I do, the whole village will know of my condition.” Currently, she is suffering from uterine prolapse, a condition where in the pelvic floor muscles and ligaments stretch and weaken to a point where it fails to provide enough support to the uterus.[7]

Mothers and mothers-in-law being identified as the main source of knowledge could explain the high percentage of misconceptions within the female population since they passed this information from one generation to the next.[8]  But on February 5 Tuli Devi Rawat, a local from Bajhang said that “Chhaupadi has made life very difficult for menstruating women. Even our daughters have to face the same ordeals, all in the name of social norms.” She said that it is quite difficult to eliminate the deeply rooted practice as it is linked to religion, culture, and tradition.[9]  Lack of education and awareness makes them follow these social norms and tradition. But there has been some positive impact after a few awareness programs conducted in some of the districts. The program which was supported by the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women (UN Trust Fund) worked with young people as peer educators and provided education and support to community leaders, traditional healers, local governments, and organizations. In just two years, it has trained 131 peer educators and its activities have reached over 20,000 girls and women, and 15,000 boys and men. Prior to the program, almost 20 percent of girls and women used to sleep in a Chhaupadi hut during menstruation; and now it is down to 5 percent.[10]
Even though the government declared the practice of Chhaupadi as illegal, the practice still continues due to illiteracy, superstitious beliefs, gender inequality, and power relations. Most people are unaware about the new law declared by the government. Thus this new legal change needs to be known and understood by people. Destroying sheds or the huts is not the solution. Most of the women are from the older generation – superstitious and also with no education. To make them understand about the consequences of this evil practice is difficult and will need thorough campaigns and awareness programs. It is found that in many places, women have stopped practicing Chhaupadi after they participated in several awareness programs. This change can be brought slowly by taking different measures. For instance, some of the women’s groups can take actions by supporting each other to stop such practices though it might be hard in the beginning. Also women’s group could organize fundraising programs in each village and collect money to construct safe houses for the women’s security during menstruation. This would help in decreasing number of deaths in isolation. With locked doors and ventilated windows, there will be less risk of animal attacks, rape, and extreme weather conditions.

Women need to take care of their health and eat nutritious food during menstruation. However, this has not been true for women in chhau. Eliminating Chhaupadi practice needs social awareness together with legal provisions. Initiatives taken to educate on menstruation need to include both men and women of all ages. This way it will help to bring gradual change in people’s understanding. Only continuous interventions for immediate and long-term awareness organized simultaneously with legal provision will bring successful outcomes.

[1] The Himalayan Times. (2019). Lawmakers visit Bajura for field study of chhaupadi.

[2] The Kathmandu Post. (2019). Cold winter nights add to the trauma of women banished to period huts.

[3] The Kathmandu Post. (2019). “Woman Dies of Suffocation after She Was Banished to Secluded Home during Menstruation.”.

[4] My Republica. (2019). “Chhaupadi Deaths Fail to Teach People Any Lesson.”.

[5] Aldama, Z. (2018). Period shaming in Nepal: new law may finally end practice of banishing menstruating women. South China Morning Post

[6] Restless Development . (2015). Abolition of chhaupadi in in the far and mid-western region of Nepal.

[7] The Kathmandu Post. (2019). Reproductive Health Issues Still a Taboo Subject among women in Accham.

[8] Restless Development . (2015). Abolition of chhaupadi in in the far and mid-western region of Nepal.

[9] The Kathmandu Post. (2019). Cold winter nights add to the trauma of women banished to period huts.

[10] Un Women | UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women. (2017, April Wednesday). UN Women.

Author: Pratik Gurung

Photo: Pratik Gurung

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