Centuries old Nepal banishment ritual endangers girls and women

Stone chhaupadi hut - Nepal
Stone chhaupadi hut - Nepal. Image: mysansar

“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”, said Raut. “While there, I was given a dark room with no sunlight and given one plate and glass to use for eating”.

Asked to use separate eating utensils, girls are also not allowed to enter any kitchen or home prayer room for twenty-two days. Looking in the mirror during menstruation is also considered bad luck. The list of restrictions is long and debilitating.

“Our culture has the superstitious belief that menstruation is the punishment of sins from our previous lives”, explained Raut.

To ‘protect’ relatives and neighbors from any ‘ills’ of exposure to a girl, some chhaupadi sheds are built as far away from the family home as possible. The distance can be as far as one mile away.

“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’. . .”.

Even though a September 2005 Nepal Supreme Court decision ordered the government to enact a law “abolishing the practice of chhaupadi”, the court rule has been largely ineffective.

Today the human rights crime of chhaupadi continues with impunity in numerous locations, especially rural Nepal where poverty is the norm. Extreme and dangerous versions of the ritual still exist in the districts of Chitwan, Kailali, Baitadi, Darchula, Achham, Doti, Bajhang, Dadeldura and Kanchanpur.

Often given only a small area of straw grass to sleep on and little to no blanket, girls and women who have been banished to outside sheds during the winter months can reach a state of critical medical emergency. Hypothermia during winter months is a stark and real possibility.

“Our culture has the superstitious belief that menstruation is the punishment of sins from our previous lives”. – Nilima Raut

“When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up your body’s stored energy. The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature”, outlined a United States CDC – Center for Disease Control – Emergency Preparedness & Response report.

“Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and won’t be able to do anything about it”, continued the report by the CDC.

Dehydration caused by inadequate water in many sheds can also be a precursor to heat stroke in the summer season with symptoms of extreme nausea, headaches, vomiting and acute lowered blood pressure.

“Days were so hard; all of the restrictions were the worst part”, said Raut. “At the time, I had to use rags because I didn’t even know there were things like sanitary pads”, she continued. “Using rags was unhygienic and I was also unaware of how to wash them carefully”.

Suffering from a ‘culture of silence’ covering female reproductive education, girls in Nepal also have a 46 percent prevalence of anemia, says a 2004 study by the Ministry of Health Nepal. Because of this tendency, isolation during menses can place many Nepali girls in a dangerous,  unhealthy and compromised position.

Public health education in Nepal is beginning to improve, especially now with a recent March 2011 approval of a fifteen million Nepal government (USD) dollars slated to improve toilets for Nepali girls nationwide. But the nation still has a very long way to go. “We need an integrative approach that involves gender sensitivity among teachers and programs. . .”, stressed Raut.

Govinda Raj Sedhai, secretary of District Education Office in Dolakha agrees. The education ministry is hoping to establish a new annual literacy plan in the region; including three days of health education classes dedicated exclusively to reproductive health and menstruation hygiene.

Chhaupadi ritual and culture can be a serious ‘matter of life and death’ for many girls and women in Nepal, especially those living in the western districts. Winter months are exceptionally critical for girls and women isolated in menstrual sheds. “A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and may not seem to have a pulse or to be breathing”, explains the U.S. Center for Disease Control report.  “In this case, handle the victim gently, and get emergency assistance immediately”.

Two weeks after the 2010 death of Belu Damai, another chhaupadi death occurred in Nepal’s Achham district. The January 17 death of thirty-five year old Jhupridevi Hudke happened when low temperatures hit the region. Hudke died inside a hut in the village of Payal after staying in a menstrual shed for five days. Her eight-month-old son, who was with her at the time, was found unconscious.

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[Youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egvmHkID3Qg?rel=0]

A group menstrual hut used by local women in a rural village in west Nepal shows the rough conditions for women who are forced to isolate away from their families during their menstrual cycle. Prevailing attitudes of male family members also reveal a distinct  fear and repulsion of women and girls during menarche. This 3:18 min video is a production of MetropoliswebTV Nepal.

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WNN environment, education and society correspondent, Nilima Raut, from Charikot-Dolakha, Nepal, is currently finishing her M.A. in communication and journalism attending the Ratna Raya Laxmi Campus in Kathmandu. Raut has been an active public advocate; working for girls’ rights with the girls toilet project and as a public relations officer for Nepal Rotaract District 3292. She has also worked as a radio broadcast jockey producer and documentary narrator. “I was recently selected as an outstanding candidate to represent Nepal at the One Young World conference, taking place in September 2011 in Switzerland”, says Raut. Nalima is also a participant of the World Pulse – Voices of Our Future: Web 2.0 journalists training program.

Gender news correspondent and social justice reporter Shubhi Tandon completed her degree from Cardiff University – UK with a dissertation examining the pervasive societal attitudes towards women in India. Gender discrimination, and the crimes committed against women, have been a focus of Tandon’s since her undergraduate days in English Literature from Delhi. Shubhi believes strongly, through reporting on the struggles that women face every day, she can help usher a shift in global attitudes and awareness about women.

Some statements by Nilima Raut in this story have been provided by a World Pulse partnership with Women News Network – WNN.

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Sources for this article include AlertNet – Thomas Reuters Foundation Service, National Climatic Data Center at NOAA – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, BBC news, eKantipur.com, U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Kathmandu Post, The Asia Foundation, Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal, WaterAid, US CDC – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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©2011 Women News Network – WNN
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