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Nepal woman in Chhaupadi animal barn

A woman in the western region of Jumla, Nepal stays in a stone cow barn for days while on her menstrual cycle. Cold weather and a hard environment can hurt women who are following the ancient Hindu practice of Chhaupadi. Image: Radha Paudel/AWON

(WNN) Jumla, NEPAL, SOUTHERN ASIA: As winter temperatures hit the mountainous regions of Nepal, Nepalese humanitarian and education advocate Ms. Radha Paudel is working to bring critical issues on the lack of safety for women and girls in Nepal to the public, especially on the issue of Nepal’s stubborn acceptance in the practice of Chhaupadi. But the question might be how much of the practice is determined by conservative versions of the Hindu religion in the region?

Under Nepal’s ancient practice of Chhaupadi numerous women, especially those who live in rural areas, are forced by custom to isolate away from their homes, life and family during each monthly menstrual cycle. But the isolation can become deadly say advocates who want the practice of to stop.

“In Hindu culture, menstruation (a reproductive health element) is considered religiously impure and ceremonially unclean,” outlined a research project by Annamalai University in India’s southern Tamil Nadu region. These customs are tied to the ideas of a woman’s ‘virtue’ and ‘purity’.

The practice of Chhaupadi includes rigid restrictions for women, as well as young adolescent girls who have just begun menstruating, forces them to stay in unheated and most often rudely made shelters, including animal sheds. Women and girls are also restricted from entering their own homes, or from using any eating utensils also used by their family. During isolation while they are menstruating women are also not allowed to touch or see their own babies or any other family members during the while they are menstruating.

But dangers in the religious practice continue as winter time hypothermia can set in for women and girls who live in high altitude rural areas.

Winter weather, especially in areas like the north eastern mountainous Sankhuwasabha District in the Kozi Zone which is approximately 45 miles from the foothills of Mount Everest. Because of high altitudes the region can become ‘extra harsh’ for women who are banished to stay in roughly made shelters without heat or proper protection from  animals, pests or the elements. Most often the women and girls who are subjected to the practice are not given proper clothing to wear during cold winter months. Because of this deaths have occurred due to frigid nighttime temperatures as women and girls follow the directions of their families.

In addition to religion, the practice of Chhaupadi today is spurred on today by society and superstition in Nepal where a history of widespread marginalization and discrimination against women and girls continues. Menstrual ‘taboo’ under the fear of blood is largely to blame for the practice, say some experts.

“As guided by Hinduism, women and girls considered Sudra and menstruation is the result of sin. Menstrual taboo is practicing among Bramin, Chhetri and dalit (so called untouchable) communities thought the intensity and gravity varies from place to place,” describes Paudel who comes from the western mountainous region where the practice of Chhaupadi is also common, although Paudel says the practice can be found everywhere in Nepal, both urban and rural.

It is common across all Nepal no matter whether it is urban or rural, educated or uneducated etc…,” said Paudel in a recent  November 2013 blogpost.

But the act of isolation and discrimination for women and girls during their menstrual cycle is not restricted only to Hindu predominate Nepal. It can also be found in Judaism , Buddhist, Islamic and Christian theosophy.

“Every major religion views the menstruating woman as impure, despite the fact that there is nothing inherently impure about the process. Some religions view the impurity as strictly spiritual; others fear physical danger and harm as well,” says a 2007 report by the The Internet Journal of World Health and Societal Politics.

The movement toward right-leaning conservative Hinduism may be on the rise in Nepal as the Rastriya Prajatantra Party is now listed in 2014 as the fourth political party from the top in the region. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party is also currently pushing for Nepal to become a Hindu State.

“Religious practices, like chaupadi, and social inequality isolate women from services and complicate attempts to change behavior,” outlines a 2012 report by The Pulitzer Center.

Change that is wrapped in the history of religion itself may be an uphill climb for the practice of Chhaupadi that is lead by what advocates for women call “conservative concepts” and practice. In spite of this Nepal-based advocates like Radha Paudel work to move the tide of restrictions against women away from Nepali society.

“Menstrual taboo is practicing [practiced] among Bramin, Chhetri and dalit (so called untouchable) communities…the intensity and gravity varies from place to place,” said Paudel as she explained the levels of Hindu society that exist inside Nepal and still practice Chhaupadi today.

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While this video was produced with Radha Paudel and AWON Nepal to raise monies, it also gives a bird’s eye view of conditions on the ground for women and children who live in the western mountainous rural areas in Nepal.

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