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CHHAUPADI THE DEATH OF WOMEN’S DIGNITY ONE MENSTRUAL CYCLE AT A TIME
“Extreme forms of Chhaupadi dictate what and when a woman can eat, where she can sleep, with whom she can interact, where she can go, and whom she can touch. Women in such cases are denied proper food and basic sanitation. They are also forced to purify themselves of their sins with cow piss and cold water. But what sins? We should not tolerate the existence of a society where a female’s menstruation, a natural process, is classified as a sin. When a girl gets her period, it’s the universe saying, you are now a woman, you are capable of wonders so magnificent that should you choose, you can bring another life to this world. How foolish of us to shame the women who give birth to us! How hypocritical of us to pray to all our female Goddesses only to treat the real Goddesses in our lives with such disrespect and humiliation.”
– Closing lines of Bloody Hell– a play on Chhaupadi performed at Kent Enlightens
Nepal, 2017, UK.
Text by Nilaza Adhikari
When I wrote the above words for our play on Chhaupadi at University, I would have never predicted that we would receive the amount of support, attention and encouragement we did, so much so that we would later be invited by the Nepalese Ambassador to perform the play at the Nepalese Embassy in London. I write on Chhaupadi once again because despite efforts made by Nepalese youth, the government, NGOs and other bodies to end Chhaupadi, injustice, torture and murder due to this practice continue.
In an attempt to offer a refreshing view on Chhaupadi, I hope this article helps us scrutinise the justifications given for Chhaupadi, and not just its extreme form but also its manifestation in modern Nepal, in cities and educated households. In doing so, I hope we are able to identify problems stopping the eradication of Chhaupadi and that we can continue our strong efforts to indefinitely stop this practice.
The current status of Chhaupadi
Chhaupadi in Nepalese translates to menstruation and it is the extreme exclusion and segregation of women when they are, you guessed it: menstruating. This practice is deeply rooted in Hinduism and advocates that women must be separated from their family and society whilst she is bleeding due to her ‘impurity’. Chhaupadi is popularly recognised for its extreme form in villages where women are shunned into menstruation huts or cow sheds. This monthly menstruation exile is not only a severe violation of human rights but for a woman it often serves as a one-way ticket to death.
Last year, 18-year-old Tulasi Shahi was pronounced dead seven hours after a snake that entered the menstrual hut she was banished to, bit and poisoned her. Not long after Tulasi’s death, Gauri Kumari Bayak lit a fire inside a hut to keep herself warm, only to be found dead in the morning due to suffocation from the fog. Gauri, as reported by the New York Times, was an educated and ambitious woman high school student, who was teaching illiterate women to read. Most recently, Amba Bohara and her sons, Ramit and Suresh were found dead in a hut in Bajura because their blankets caught on fire from the flames they lit to keep themselves warm. These are only a few select cases of death caused by Chhaupadi that have captured both national and international media attention, but the reality is that Chhaupadi claims several dozens of women victims each year while causing hundreds of women to suffer in silence every month.
The most alarming fact about Chhaupadi is that death tolls continue to rise because of this practice despite its legal ban. In 2005, the Supreme Court of Nepal outlawed this horrendous practice followed by a call for its effective implementation. In 2017, after a pile of death reports and loud cries for help to punish those who practiced Chhaupadi, the Criminal Code Bill passed by the Parliament criminalised Chhaupadi and allocated a three-month prison sentence or a fine of 3,000 rupees (or both) to anyone who forces a woman to adhere to the practice. The bill also states that during her menstruation a woman should never be kept in Chhaupadi or treated as an untouchable. Yet, implementation of this bill appears to be ineffective.
A deeper look at the justifications for Chhaupadi
With current women empowerment movements, it is unsurprising that Chhaupadi is often employed as tool to impose authority and power over women in general but especially towards the younger generations. A report submitted to the committee of the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) highlighted that a large portion of men in Nepalese society continue to believe and advance the idea that Chhaupadi is a necessity. These are the same men who think that menstruation is impure, unclean and that banishing a menstruating woman and prohibiting her from sharing common village resources will keep the environment and houses clean, thereby also ensuring health and safety in households. They even argue that if a woman is menstruating and she dares to touch a man, then the man will get sick, contaminated him with her ‘impurity’. Protecting the society or more so patriarchy against a dirty bleeding woman seems to be a popular argument used to justify inhumane treatments against women.
This idea of associating a minority with “disgust” or “impurity” is often used in our society. For instance, in the past and even now, highly educated academics and politicians term homosexuality as a disease that will infiltrate our society with HIV AIDS and germs. This sort of tactic is used to make a minority/group, or their particular actions and characteristic repulsive and so appalling that it manipulates people into thinking that these groups do not belong in society because they pose a threat to our health and sanitation. This is also the same tactic used for widows in Nepal, where widows from poor families in particular are persecuted and often tortured for once again being impure and get this – witches who bring bad luck. In the context of Chhaupadi, associating a women’s menstruation with impurity and disgust is saying that she is a danger to society and is less than everyone for bleeding. Quite bizarre, isn’t it?
Chhaupadi is also grounded on religious beliefs and tradition. A bleeding woman is considered inauspicious and therefore she is treated as an untouchable. For example, Kumari, who we know as the living Goddess, who in reality is a young girl ‘chosen’ to be Kumari, is deemed not to be a Goddess once she begins menstruating. So essentially, the discussion here regarding women being impure and inauspicious all boils down to blood: its nasty and you keep it away from the realms of the gods, who are holy and clean. This is an easy explanation for a girl who has been told not to enter the puja kotha [prayer room] at home. What is ironic however is that if blood is so impure then why are animals massacred in temples as offerings to only female Goddesses, and in due process why is their blood smeared around as liquid gold? In Hinduism, we pray to female Goddess such as Saraswathi (the Goddess of knowledge) and Laxmi (the Goddess of wealth) and in certain religious occasions, they are even worshipped as the highest of all the Gods. I truly believe that these Goddesses would be disgusted and ashamed of how women are treated during their period. Frankly speaking, I hope Saraswathi is reading this article right now and she remembers to dust some much-needed knowledge on those who enable and support Chhaupadi, even in its most minor forms.
In my view, regardless of its so-called religious sources, I find all justifications for Chhaupadi to be highly illogical because nothing can justify inhuman practices. What I also find deplorable, is that a considerable number of Nepalese women themselves often encourage and justify Chhaupadi, thereby contributing to the behaviour of suppressing women and girls, consciously or unconsciously. Various reports on Chhaupadi by the Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organization highlights that mothers and mothers-in-law play a fundamental role in upholding Chhaupadi, often for the sake of tradition. Mother-in-laws especially were said to be using this practice to establish their dominance over their daughters-in-law. Women in households in Kathmandu, Pokhara and other cities, who practice fewer extreme forms of Chhaupadi (which are still unacceptable) may think that preventing their daughters from entering the kitchen during her period is harmless, but what they are actually doing, whether they mean to or not, is teaching girls to value themselves as both impure and burden. They are also encouraging girls to be subordinates and accept ‘unacceptable’ rules as to what they can or cannot touch, where they may or may not enter and so on without even questioning why they are being penalised for menstruating– a natural human function. This situation is worse for girls who do not have the ability and resource to be empowered enough to value their dignity and voice what they feel is right.
The Manifestation of Chhaupadi in Modern Nepal
When interviewing Kelly Gurung, a student at Hampshire College, Massachusetts and an advocate for abolishing Chhaupadi, on Chhaupadi in Nepal, Kelly said:
“I remember telling my uncle that I would be traveling to Achham, to gain a better understanding of Chhaupadi and visit the menstrual huts. I was surprised when my uncle told me that if I wanted to understand Chhaupadi, there was no need for me to travel that far, for I could easily find menstruation huts in villages near Kathmandu and even within Kathmandu, in modern houses, women practice different form of Chhaupadi and they are also imposed with different restrictions…some women are even obliged to stay in a separate room.”
An extremely important thing that I have learned and must emphasise is that just because a family is educated or financially well off does is no way guarantee that Chhaupadi is not practiced in that household. The ongoing hypocrisy in our society that we must pay attention to is that exclusion of women during their menstruation happens even in the most educated households. The very communities that call Chhaupadi extreme will not hesitate to stop their daughters from entering the kitchen or puja kotha when they are on their period. Chhaupadi happens in cities too!
Unfortunately, the sad reality of our world is that a women’s pain is always assumed to be tolerable, up until the pain seriously harms or kills her.
In December 2018, Gesellschaft International eZusammenarbeit (GIZ) and the Menstrual Health Management (MHM) Alliance hosted Nepal’s first consultative workshop on menstrual health titled ‘No time to rest: Ensuring every girl can thrive on her period.’ The workshop, as highlighted by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, aims to provide a platform for all actors working on menstrual health to push their MHM agendas forward. In particular, one of the main objectives of the workshop is to help advance national policies and strategies pertaining to MHM, in accordance with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, to help women and girls in Nepal truly live their best life even whilst on their period!
There are also various organisations such as Ruby Cup, Water Aid, The British Academy who are working both individually and in cooperation with Nepal’s Ministry of Water and Sanitation to ensure that Chhaupadi can no longer undermine a women’s right to live with dignity. A successful method thus far has been to educate women and young girl about managing their menstrual hygiene and the process of menstruation itself. Ruby Cup for instance donates Ruby Cups (menstrual cups) to young girls in rural Nepal and organises workshops that teach the girls how to use the cups, along with much needed education on sexual education and MHM.
Almost all women and girls in Nepal face severe challenges when menstruating as they lack sanitary materials such as pads, tampons and often do not have access to clean, safe and gender-segregated toilet. Here, legal advocation, education and grassroots initiatives, as seen above, can act as a vessel for change. In this case its advocating for free pads, tampons and the construction of clean gender-segregated toilets can help alleviate period poverty—a problem that we must prioritise and tackle. Period poverty is particularly prevalent amongst low income group and rural areas in Nepal. Imagine feeling shame and embarrassment because you’re bleeding, and you don’t have sanitary access to help yourself and then having to skip school because of your period and even being encouraged to do so by your teachers! This is the case of many girls in Nepal. Educating girls on MHM has proved to be equally helpful, especially in terms of empowering young girls to be safe, smart and responsible when it comes to their menstrual health.
However, educating our society on MHM however is different to educating them on why Chhaupadi is deplorable. When Kelly visited Accham to advance her social enterprise idea on Chhaupadi and menstrual health she told me that:
“Everyone [MHM volunteers and youth activists] was sick of people just not understanding that Chhaupadi should not be practised. Up until now, many bodies, including our government, have worked on changing people’s perception, yet they have not been entirely successful as a majority of the women still practice Chhaupadi. Keeping that in mind and also considering that I am an outsider to the people in Achham, advocating to stop a practice that is deeply rooted in their religion and which has been practiced for years… at times it seems like us helping out would not bring immediate impact. The situation felt more uncomfortable when people in Accham questioned why they should listen to an outsider.”
Kelly also highlighted that when menstrual huts are destroyed by either the government or grassroots initiatives, once authorities leave, plastics are often used to tape cover the damaged area of the huts and it does not stop families from banishing their menstruating daughters to the now broken huts. What is the solution to this? Do we put cameras and supervise villages 24/7? What about inside houses in Kathmandu, if a girl is told to stay in her room for four days? There comes a time when the law, the government, NGO’s cannot reach people. And while speaking of laws, yes laws and policies are rising and there have been attempts to implement them, but I am shocked that till now, I have never read or heard that someone has actually be imprisoned or fined for practicing Chhaupadi. Have you?
Although efforts made by activists, youths and organisations in particular, to eradicate Chhaupadi must without a doubt be applauded, we must also remember that our responsibilities do not end here. Our efforts to combat Chhaupadi must continue! As I end this article focusing more on the extreme form of Chhaupadi because the cries and death of women and girls suffering in Nepal call for immediate action, I also want to remind everyone of modern Chhaupadi. To all the girls and women, let us empower one another and stop excluding women, both physically and mentallywhen they are menstruating. To all the boys and men, let us support MHM and this movement to end Chhaupadi, not just because someone you care about happens to be a woman and you feel obliged to, but rather because women deserve to live their life with dignity, and it is truly a human thing to do. I stand by those that are joining the fight against Chhaupadi and its enablers. Together, we will ensure that tradition, religion and culture will never again be accepted as an excuse to strip women of their human rights. More power to us!