Centuries old Nepal banishment ritual endangers girls and women

Nepal correspondent Nilima Raut with Shubhi Tandon – WNN Features

Nepali girl and brother in western Chitwan district
Nepali girl and brother in western Chitwan district. Image: Symmetry_mind/Flickr

(WNN) KATHMANDU: The centuries old practice of chhaupadi in Nepal can cause prolonged depression in girls and women. In extreme cases it can also cause death.

Chhaupadi pratha, or ritual practice, places Nepali women and girls in a limbo of isolation. In history it is a practice that has been largely accepted. The word chhaupadi, translates in the Achham local Raute dialect as ‘chhau’ which means menstruation and ‘padi’ – woman.

Today the ritual of banishment surrounding chhaupadi still affects girls and women on all levels of Nepali society.

This dangerous practice also isolates woman during and after childbirth as they are banished for up to eleven days away from family members, causing critical danger and increasing complications that can, and do, lead to maternal and child mortality due to the possibility of excessive bleeding and asepsis following labour.

A chhaupadi shed or hut, also called chhaupadi goth, is a rudimentary stone, grass or stick shelter. Most shelters, many which are also commonly used as cow or goat sheds, have dirt floors and no windows. Many sheds have no water. Habitation by humans in these sheds can create dangerous situations as structures can reach below freezing temperatures in the winter and sweltering temperatures in the summer.

The January 2010 death of  forty year old Belu Damai is a case in point. Damai was found dead on January 3rd in a chhaupadi (menstrual) shed in Bhairabsthan (VDC-8) in Nepal’s remote western district of Achham.

Damai’s death was part of a larger event. Cold temperatures in Northern India, Nepal and Bangladesh caused the death of over 165 people in the South Asia region from January 3rd through January 6th. Those who were the most vulnerable were those suffering from severe poverty.

“Temperatures dropped to 30 °F (-1 °C) for several nights in the region, with daily mean temperatures 11 °F to 18 °F ( 6 °C to 10 °C) below normal”, said the National Climatic Data Center at NOAA – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in its 2010 report. “Up to four inches (10 cm) of snow was reported along lower elevations in Himachal Pradesh, India on January 3rd — a rare occurrence for the region”.

‘Nachhunu‘, the Nepali word for menstruation, also translates as ‘untouchable’. Even in modern Nepal it is common for women who are menstruating to be considered ‘impure’ and untouchable during the days of their menses. Everything they touch during the time of their menstruation can also be considered impure.

“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

“I noticed changes occurring in my body and this was a very weird experience for me”, says WNN correspondent in Kathmandu, Nilima Raut.“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”.

The taboo associated with this natural process for women has contributed to a widespread lack of knowledge about physical hygiene and female menstruation, especially in the rural areas of Nepal.

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.

Girls who have their first cycle of menses often face, for the very first time, harsh restrictions based on superstitions. On the start of their menarche they suddenly cannot touch any males, including their father and brothers. They cannot cross a bridge. They are barred from entering their own home. They cannot speak loudly. They cannot perform their usual errands as their menses may cause them to poison or ‘taint’ whatever they touch.

Not all girls stay in a chhaupadi goth (shed) during menarche. Some are sent away to another home or location. While more affluent educated Nepali families do not place their daughters outside in sheds during the cycle of their menses, many of these daughters are also often isolated away from family members and the comfort of home.

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