NEPAL: Women in Chhuaupadi – ADELE BUTLER

Nepali Women and Girls Isolated During Menstruation

On the Violence is Not Our Culture site, I read about a ritual practice in Nepal called Chhuaupadi pratha which can cause prolonged depression and even death among girls and women. “Chhau” means menstruation and “padi” – woman. It is a ritual which banishes girls and women during their menstruation. It is dangerous because it also isolates women during and after childbirth. These women are banished fro up to eleven days away from their families. This can put the women in critical danger and increase complications which can lead to maternal and child mortality due to the possibility of excessive bleeding and asepsis following labour.
Women spend their isolation in a Chhaupadi shed or hut which is made of rudimentary stone, grass or stick shelter. Most of these shelters are used for cows and goats. They have dirt floors and are windowless. Many of them don’t have water and they are dangerous structures for women who are forced to stay there because the temperatures can reach below freezing in the winter or soar to sweltering highs during the summer. Last January a forty year old woman was found dead in a chhaupadi shed in a remote district in Nepal. She had died from the cold.
Women who are menstruating are considered untouchable, impure and everything they touch can be considered impure. WNN correspondent in Kathmandu, Nilima Raut shares her experience. “They packed some of my dresses and told my dad to go out of (the) house so that I couldn’t see him. I went with our house maid to her home which was approximately 1 ½ hours away. While there, I was given a dark room with no sunlight and given one plate and glass to use for eating. I noticed changes occurring in my body and this was a very weird experience for me. Back then, our culture didn’t allow us to talk freely about physical bodily changes, or reproductive or sexual health; even now, the custom remains in my country. . . It was shameful for me to ask my parents about these physical changes and even my mom never told me exactly what would happen in my body as I matured.”
I was fortunate that my mother told me about menstruation before I got it. It’s something all mothers should talk to their daughters about. It is a natural process but in Nepal it is a taboo subject and it contributes to a widespread lack of knowledge about physical hygiene and menstruation particularly in rural areas. According to Nepal’s Monthly Monitoring and Annual Performance Review Worksheet 2009-2010 an average of ninety-six cases of menstruation disorders were reported each month by married and unmarried women in the district primary health center of Dolakha, a northern district in Nepal. Public service advertisements in Nepal television, radio, and newspapers do include information on major diseases, but they don’t include any information to help the public become more aware of health and menstruation hygiene.

“Neither women’s activist groups nor the (Nepal) government have made adequate attempts at addressing these issues”, says Om Prasad Gautam for WaterAid, one of the major on-the-ground organizations working to bring greater awareness with sanitation inside Nepal.
Imagine being a girl who is going through her first cycle of menses. She faces harsh restrictions based on superstitions and not facts. At the onset of their menarche, girls are suddenly forbidden touch any males, including male relatives like their fathers and brothers. They can’t cross a bridge and they are barred from entering their homes. They can’t speak loudly. They are prohibited from performing their errands as their menses may cause them to poison or “taint” whatever they touch.
Not all of these girls stay in the chhaupadi shed during their menarche. Some of them are sent away to another home or location. Those from an affluent and educated background are not placed in sheds but many are isolated from their families and the comfort of their homes. I can’t imagine my family sending me away when I had my first cycle which was when I was twelve years old. How scary and traumatic for these girls who can’t talk to their mothers about the changes they are going through.

These girls are not allowed to enter any kitchen or home prayer room for twenty-two days. It is even considered bad luck to look at yourself in the mirror during menstruation. “Our culture has the superstitious belief that menstruation is the punishment of sins from our previous lives”, explained Nilima. Some chhaupadi sheds are built as far away from the girls’ homes as possible—as far as one mile. Why? It is done to protect relatives and neighbors from any “ills” of exposure to a girl. Nilima recalled, “On‘those days’, I was kept away from school and feared what questions my friends and teachers would ask”, continued Raut. “I saw many of my friends miss school during their menstrual periods; I also saw some friends get married after they started menstruating because they were now considered ‘grown up’. . .”
Something needs to be done about this. The government needs to step up and protect these girls. In September 2005, the Nepal Supreme Court passed a decision which ordered the government to enact a law to abolish the practice of chhaupadi. Unfortunately, this ruling has been largely ineffective. This practice which violates human rights continues unabated in numerous locations, specifically in poor areas.

Girls and women are given a small area of straw grass to sleep on and little or no blanket in sheds during the winter months. Hypothermia can set in. When I read about the thirty-three year old mother who died inside a hut after staying in a menstrual shed for five days, I was angry. Tears came to my eyes because her eight month old son who was with her at the time was found unconscious. What kind of people would isolate a mother and her infant simply because she was experiencing something that is perfectly natural for a woman?
During the summer, inadequate water can cause dehydration which may lead to heat stroke. The symptoms of heat stroke are extreme nausea, headaches, vomiting and acute lowered blood pressure. It’s criminal what these girls are subjected to. It’s as if they are punished for being female.

They packed some of my dresses and told my dad to go out of (the) house so that I couldn’t see him. I went with our house maid to her home which was approximately 1 ½ hours away. While there, I was given a dark room with no sunlight and given one plate and glass to use for eating”. – Nilima Raut

The chhaupadi ritual needs to be abolished. It is a serious matter of life and death for girls and women. No more superstitions or silence or isolation. There needs to be female reproductive education. Mothers need to let their daughters know that they can use sanitary napkins instead of rags which are unhygienic. Families need to learn that these girls pose no threat or danger to them and that menstruation is not the punishment of past sins but a natural process females go through.
It’s time for the government to enact the law which would abolish this practice so that no more women die needlessly. It’s time for the women’s activist groups to address this issue head on and make it clear that this practice is unacceptable. It’s time to Take Action!

Adele Butler, A Celebration of Women 2011

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