Sharmila Bhandar, APMA 2020, Nepal
The term “chaupadi” might be a little-known word for the people living outside Nepal, but it has profound implications on Nepali women’s rights, especially in the country’s western region. It is the ritual that isolates menstruating women from the rest of the community. During menstruation, women are considered “impure” or “dirty” and deemed “untouchable.” They are made to move out of the house and often banished to poorly-constructed chaupadi huts for seven days.
During this time, they are not allowed to visit their homes, see their family members, or go to schools, temples, community water resources and to attend any religious festivals or social events. This custom starts from a teenage girl’s first menstrual cycle and continues until she reaches menopause. Many women sleep on the floor with a single rug and have no access to proper toilets, water, and sanitation products aside from being forbidden to eat certain types of food.
This practice of monthly isolation carries negative consequences for the women including improper nutrition, health problems because of an unhygienic environment (mainly reproductive health), deprivation of education and economic opportunities. Also, some of them have suffered sexual assault, deadly snake bite and animal attacks. Every year many girls and women die while practicing this tradition as they are deprived of the protection and comfort of their homes and families. Data shows some of them have died of diarrhea and dehydration, suffocation, carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation (from the fire kindled to stay warm inside the hut), snake bite, cold, rape and many more.
In 2017, the supreme court of Nepal declared the practice illegal, with those forcing women to practice chaupadi liable for imprisonment and fines. However, there is no enforcement of legislation. The court decision has had a negligible impact on Nepali society and this tradition is still practiced. The stigma and shame associated with menstruation remains strong.
There are numerous Non-government organizations currently working to eradicate this practice through creating awareness campaigns at various levels. Social change, however, is slow to come, as belief in this tradition runs deep in Nepali society. Many communities believe that to break this tradition would bring devastating misfortune.
Two years ago, a joint effort by communities and non-government organizations was successful in destroying hundreds of chaupadi huts in most of the districts from western part of Nepal. This, however, did not stop the practice. Most of the huts were reconstructed. Others “modernized” the practice by transforming a room of their own house into a chaupadi room.
Women and girls have faced institutional, interpersonal, structural and social discrimination through the oppressive practice of chaupadi. Its insidious reach is so extensive. The negative impressions about women and the menstrual cycle reach into all the different aspects of a woman’s life, from how society views women to how women view themselves and their bodies and its functions.
If we take a moment to pause and reflect, we see that this seemingly “reasonable” and “traditional” act is truly an injustice against women who deserve love and support but are met with horrible chaupadi huts and discrimination.
It is important that every citizen is provided with proper education to change people’s perception on menstruation and identifying the root cause of this malpractice. Common misconception about menstruation stems around the idea of menstruation blood as impure and dirty. This is so obviously wrong and leads to shame and stigma around menstruation and the individual who menstruates, which also provides the foundation for gender-based violence. The biggest challenge is to make people understand about the scientific reason behind the menstrual process. It will require the transformation of social beliefs and eradicate the stigma and taboo that deeply impacts our state of mind.
When individuals are educated about facts surrounding menstruation, they are empowered to use their privileges and aid in the fight for equity. There is a critical need for every individual (local leaders, students, youths, parents, government bodies and other stakeholders) to be held accountable and responsible for the fight against chaupadi practice as well as other menstrual discrimination in Nepal.
*The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.
Photo from Pulitzer Center.