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Women’s March & the Social Movement of Change

Artwork by Amy Scheidegger,
By Ameena Mohyuddin Zia

"Our liberation is bound in each other's..."-Women's March Intersectional Policy Platform
Women’s March on Washington is expected to be the largest gathering of people collectively standing in solidarity for civil rights in the history of United States. The nature of the March in itself is unique as it has morphed from being pro-woman and or anti-Trump into a catch-all protest to include all who find themselves either on the outside of the current political environment or those who have historically been institutionally marginalized.

Organic and grassroots in nature, it has taken on a life of its own as over 57 countries have joined in issues in a non-partisan and non-political nature. Rooted in the backdrop of a global populist wave of hate, it responds to perceived xenophobia, racism, misogyny and homophobia.

Women’s March on Washington, unlike other marches in the recent past, claims it is grounded in intersectionality and deviates from the path of white-feminism. It’s diversity statement recognizes the collective identity of the march to include those disenfranchised from the decision-making process: Asian and Pacific Islanders, Trans Women, Native Americans, African Americans, disabled individuals. It further requests white participants to recognize their own privilege and to acknowledge the struggles of others.  The three-page policy statement calls for reproductive freedom, immigration reform, police accountability, union rights, economic justice, and reaffirms Hillary Clinton’s 1995 message in Beijing that women’s rights are human rights.

As participation has amplified in the last few weeks and large numbers of sister marches are announced around the country, social scientists find this phenomenon vague and the collective construction of identity rather fascinating. The question on everyone’s mind asks, will the March turn into a social movement of change?

Social movements in general are purposeful, organized groups with a common goal that may create change, resist change, or provide a political voice to those otherwise disenfranchised. As history reminds us, it is indeed social movements that create social change.

According to scholars, social movements include elements of change-oriented goals, organization, temporal continuity, extra-institutional collective action (like a March for example) and institutional activity. All social movements follow stages towards development or failure. We witnessed the preliminary stage as people became aware and or recognized issues that needed to be heard (following the 2016 presidential election) and leaders like activists Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory emerged. The second stage, the coalescence stage, is marked as people band together and organize to publicize the issue and raise awareness with public demonstration of the March in Washington & it’s sister protests. The Woman’s March on Washington stands at this juncture of the movement cycle. Onwards whether the movement reaches an institutionalization stage when it no longer requires grassroots volunteerism and maintains itself as an established organization is to be determined. Likewise, whether it moves towards the decline stage where people fall away, adopt new movements or the movement dissolves itself after successfully bringing change is to be determined as well.

Historically, social movements have been treated as variants of collective mobilization and action. Those excluded from structures of political bargaining have no choice but to turn to collective organizing and mobilizing to gain access and translate it into influence in the context of political decision-making. In order to understand collective action, it is necessary to examine the dynamics of collective identity. Collective identity is fluid in nature as the understanding of the goals and actions among actors reflects the possibilities and limitations within their actions. It is these shared commitments that give rise to the sense of oneness that we witness as the March rallies the disenfranchised under an umbrella of solidarity. 

What is yet to be determined is if the emergence of this collective identity constructed by multiple groups of shared opinions will translate into action and change. Organizers hope to create a social movement with a voice of empathy, compassion, diversity and inclusion. As the historical significance of the Woman’s March on Washington evokes sentiments reflecting powerful protests in American history, it continues to raise issues of equity, justice and freedom. And the success of this movement will depend whether it can sustain momentum long after the march itself and unify our currently divisive society.

Ameena Mohyuddin Zia serves as the UN ECOSOC Civil Society Representative and an Adjunct Lecturer. Her PhD coursework included political economy & gender politics and her work examines social constructs through both research and visual documentation. She is also involved in domestic advocacy and international philanthropic initiatives.  

A Syrian Love Story

Sean McAllister
Elhum Shakerifar
Comrades and lovers Amer and Raghda met in a Syrian prison cell 15 years ago. When McAllister first meets their family in 2009, Raghda is back in prison leaving Amer to look after their 4 boys alone; but as the ‘Arab Spring’ sweeps the region, the family’s fate shifts irrevocably. Filmed over 5 years, the film charts their incredible odyssey to political freedom. For Raghda and Amer, it is a journey of hope, dreams and despair: for the revolution, their homeland and each other. 

Read an interview with director Sean McAllister and producer Elhum Shakerifar

1. Could you start by telling us a little about yourself? Your growing years, education and professional trajectory, perhaps?
Sean McAllister
: I grew up in a working class town called Hull which is in the north of England. I'm the only boy in a catholic family of nine. I have six older sisters.
I went to a state school. I left without formal qualifications.. I would say I definitely enjoyed a happy childhood. I was pretty much left to my own devices. My childhood friends are all still close friends today, some of whom I have made films with. Because I left school with no formal qualifications I spent years in and out of dead-end jobs working occasionally in factories. Through a local community Center I found a camera and started to make documentaries about the characters I had met through working in factories. I applied for a place at the National Film and Television School.
Elham Shakerifar: I grew up between London and Paris, and have always been fascinated by the Middle East given my Persian background. I studied Persian literature at university and later visual anthropology. Storytelling has always been a core interest.

2. What inspired A Syrian Love Story?
Sean McAllister
: Making films in the Arab world for twenty years I became fascinated with Syria after discovering Damascus.
Elham Shakerifar: When I first met Sean, he had just met Amer. The intimacy and openness in the footage he showed me was amazing, and with some knowledge of the Assad regime, it felt undeniably important to follow and keep filming. 

A still from the film

3. What drew you to Syria? What kind of preparation went into dealing with something so nuanced and painful?
Sean McAllister
: I went to Syria as the tourist industry was getting its act together. It wasn't a war torn country then,  it was in fact beautiful and rich in history. 
Elham Shakerifar: Sean’s films are character led but most importantly, he works from a gut instinct, and this is something that I completely respect and relate to. Documentary film is nuanced and painful when it is at its most honest, and I think the beauty of the craft is in being prepared to go through that process with honesty and integrity, even if that means showing your own vulnerabilities along the way and allowing the necessary time to work out what is working and what isn't, and why. 

4. What was your experience filming like? Do you have any particular anecdotes to share?
Sean McAllister: I was operating on a tourist visa so it was low key filming with small equipment. It was a pleasure to film Amer and his family as they were SO welcoming. I remember a park where on a night everyone gathered and drank and talked , this contrasted with the idea of a certain type of regime. Of course then I remember the brutality of prison, the screams of men and the horror. 
Elham Shakerifar: Sean operates as a one man band during production. When he’s filming, I typically get calls, updates and rushes daily, and there is a lot of discussion about the situation, the developments, the context. During this time, my role as a producer is very much that of a sounding board – thinking through ideas and the experience or process of filming. 

5. What have your biggest challenges been? How have you dealt with them? 
Sean McAllister: Surviving, not getting arrested, the delicacy of filming a disintegrating relationship against a backdrop on unrest. Keeping my wits about me and staying low key. You can get paranoid after a while as you sometimes are unsure about who to trust. 
Elham Shakerifar: There have been many challenges especially given the timescale of 6 years. The situation in Syria was tense, the difficulty of filming a disintegrating relationship was intense, of course Sean’s arrest was terrible and one we were very keen to reference in the film to not shy away from that complexity. The edit was very long, and again intense! Equally challenging was to see how from 2009 when we began making the film, till 2015 when we finished it, Syria hasn't been a priority and we struggled till much later in the filming process to get any support to make it.

A Still from the Film
5. As a filmmaker, you are a storyteller who takes fact out into the world through an observer's lens. When you deal with difficult subjects, how do you retain your objectivity? 
Sean McAllister:  I'm a participant in my films. I believe in subjectivity and I film in the first person to illustrate that I'm much more than an observer. I'm also changing the situation at times, changing events. 
Elham Shakerifar: I don’t know whether objectivity is possible or even something to aspire to, but I think integrity is key. Knowing where you stand and why you’re making a film is much more important than being objective, because it will set the tone and let a viewer understand where you’re coming from and why, and enable them to follow their own personal journey through the film.

6. You've been the voice of those that are otherwise not heard, considering how information on the situation in Syria is relegated only to a statistic. How does that feel? 
Sean McAllister: The film has enabled the voice through Amer and Raghda and how the big political change is now seen. The voices are theirs. It feels good that their story represents the story of a nation. 
Elham Shakerifar: It’s a delicate balance to represent someone’s life in any complexity and so that Amer and Raghda are proud of the film is so important and validating. It is important that they have been able to use the film as a platform to speak about Syria, about their realities as refugees today. It has also been amazing to see the level of response to the film – hundreds of people have written to us to tell us how moved they have been by this family, underlining how relatable it is, how it has turned their preconceptions on their head – once an audience has ‘met’ a child like Bob and see him grow up over 5 years, it would be very hard to think of refugee children like him as faceless statistics. I still get asked on a weekly basis how he is, how they all are - it's always very moving when this happens.

7. What goes into making your creative process what it is? How did you put the documentary together?
Sean McAllister: In practical terms it means embedding myself in the place, the culture, finding that voice and allowing that to tell the story. Building trust is so important to my methodology. 
Elham Shakerifar: Storytelling in verité documentary isn’t a straightforward process – it requires a level of honesty with yourself, as well as with everyone involved in the process that can be disarming, difficult. And whether in the production or in the edit, taking the time to find or understand something is more important than imposing your reality on it. 

Read more about “A Syrian Love Story” here.

The fire within

Paromita Bardoloi
Paromita Bardoloi is an independent writer and a theatre activist. Her writings over the years have been published in many national websites and magazines, including the Huffington Post, National Geographic, Women’s Web, YourStory, Bonobology, Femina, The Quint and so on. Paromita's writings have mostly dealt with women's empowerment, and she is a firm believer that it is not only the laws or education that can empower our women, but that empowerment is an inner process that includes self love and self esteem. Over the years, many women have benefitted from them. Here is Paromita's story.

Could you talk a bit about your childhood, your growing years and your education work journey to the extent you're comfortable?

I was born and brought up in a very simple middle class Assamese family. It is a very small and sleepy town, I belong to. And it still is. My father was a lawyer and my mother a lecturer in the local college. It was a modest upbringing. Our father had a grey Ambassador car. He took us to circus, plays and drives. Though it is a very small sleepy town, it had so much of art, culture that went around. Our parents made sure we went to singing and art classes. I was bad in both. My sisters learnt dance too. There would be poetry, essay and art competitions and we really participated. I won quite a few prizes there. I was a very average student. Infact I never liked classroom studies.

I was a dreamer in love with the sky and the rain; I hated what they taught in Maths and Science classes. My parents let me be if I passed from one class to another which I diligently did. I grew a deep love for poetry and the written word. I published my first story when I was in standard 7th. Now when I look back, writing has been my first love and one thing that lived with me through out. It saved me many a bad days. My love for reading and writing stayed throughout without fail. In school, no one was actually involved in reading. There was always an ache to find people who read what I did. I read the whole of Readers Digest cover to cover. I wanted someone to discuss those stories to. My school did not offer me that. Though I had a great time with friends, but the ache to find my own tribe stayed on.

My home, where I was born and brought up.

I was sent to Miranda House to do my graduation. I did English Honors. It was when I felt I could talk my heart out. My stories were heard and understood. People were better read than I was. There was so much to learn each day. I read insanely in my college years. The college library offered a solace. I was introduced to finest of world literature. I got very close to Khalil Gibran, Neruda, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Miranda House gave me my voice. I owe a lot to my alma mater. Not to forget, it gave me friends for a lifetime.

I started my career as a copywriter in a small advertising firm and then shifted to content writing. Life was going on well. But I had a deep urge to tell stories. There was so much more than the office cubicle. But I did not know how to tell and was apprehensive, if anyone would listen. That need to tell a story became an ache. Almost like unrequited love.

One day I fell sick. That was 2012 January and I went home. I think that was the turning point. No, the illness was nothing serious, it was fatigue and bad food, but it was a wakeup call for me. If you look for me before 2012, you won’t find anything substantial about me, on the Internet. But when I was home, I started to write and in April 2012, and my first piece appeared at Women’s Web. I think that was when destiny knocked at my door. I was very heartbroken then, but now I realize through my heartbreaks I was actually walking home. It was from 2013 onwards, I took writing very seriously. And life was never the same again.

Since then there had been so many co-incidences, that I think I was destined to write. The Universe cannot be so wrong! And to that let me add there had been a lot of hard work and focus. People think that it’s so beautiful to sit and write your heart out and get paid for it. But I assure you, its lot of hard work and discipline. You are on it almost every waking hour.

The journey itself fascinates me. And I am deeply grateful.

Your work is informed by and informs the core theme of women's empowerment. Could you talk about how that journey began?

My father expired in a car accident when I was 11 years old. Since then my mother brought me up. I have two elder sisters and a brother who is almost 8 years my junior. So, my growing up was amidst some very strong women. Even lot of women came home to meet Mom. So, I am closer to the women’s world. It’s only after college I made some fantastic male friends and I am grateful for the love and support I receive from them. But of course the women’s world has left a strong impression on me.

Coming from Assam, or may be from the family I come I had a gender neutral upbringing. But I remember when I was in 10th standard, one of my friend’s sister got married. She was hardly 20. And that was the first time, I thought about gender deeply. What if she was a man? I could not do much about it. I wrote a poem about it.

When I came to Delhi, I saw gender in a new perspective. In my hostel life I saw why girls who worked so hard, because they had a limited time to do all that they wanted. Miranda House opened up the layers how gender works as an identity.

In India, your genitals are supposed to decide your destiny not your capabilities. But if you dig deeper, do you think Patriarchy has done good to men? In India every 9 minutes a married man commits suicide. Men carry the burden of being a man and that has corroded them too. Socially we teach girls to keep away from men and a man’s manhood is validated with the number of women he can have by his side. That is our narrative. We don’t even teach how man and woman can be partners. Its time our social and cultural narrative changes.

I write about women empowerment because I know, in places where women have equal spaces and where women are heard as per men, violence goes down and a sense of security and balance takes over. 

Your definition of women's emancipation is so beautiful - that only laws or       education that can empower our women. Empowerment is an inner process that includes self love and self esteem. This is so, so powerful and beautiful. Could you share how your experiences, or what specific influences shaped this ideal?

Post 90s, we see a sea change in India’s workforce. A lot of women joined in. So technically, it’s like we are the first generation who has access to finances what was supposed to be a male domain. Woman for sure worked earlier too, but it’s a huge workforce today. Something India cannot deny. But has the gender rules changed with economic power? A woman’s salary is still treated as an add on. Women hardly owe property. The wage gap is way too much between genders in India. So, the question is why education and laws not making a sea change.

Here is the answer. A society is governed by its own culture and dictates. Education and laws are extremely important. But the first rules are set by the society and a society conditions an individual.

Indian culture is built on the narrative of good woman who does not ask for more. The good woman gives. The good woman is mostly non vocal. And we celebrate that woman. Here is the problem. We have not ever said that a woman is an individual, who has her own needs. She can ask for more and build her boundaries. And she can displease and offend people. Culturally we want our daughters to be pleasing so that when she is married to another family, she pleases everyone and does not ruffle a feather. That has what worked for the society. But it created generation and generation of women who were corroded from within. And one generation transferred it to another. Little girls learnt it from their mothers.

Now though we are getting all the opportunities as per men, we are still in that process of evolution where we are learning to ask for what we deserve and not accept what we are getting. We have not created a generation of women where they have deep self esteem, where they say no and ask for more.

I am a well educated woman, well read, exposed to the world and earning my own bucks. But I have realized over time that I am getting so less than I deserved. It was not only at work but in personal relationships too I was getting less. It was making me angry. That was when I realized why I was asking less, because I have not seen women asking. And you only accept what you think you deserve. Your deservingness comes from self esteem, self love and I learnt that meeting your own needs first is the highest form of self care. A woman who is fulfilled creates a happy fulfilled society. We try to fulfill others to feel fulfilled. The secret is that it is other way round. An empty cup cannot fill anyone. It has to be overflowing.

This is why my writings or in my public lectures, I emphasize on self esteem, self care and self love. It is a life changing mantra I learnt, and one day I hope will change the society.

Today, you are a writer, and a theatre activist. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

I am part of a theatre group ‘Aatish’ which is basically run by my two long standing friends Ankita Anand and Saumya Baijal. Whether it is street theatre or my writings, it is my individual effort to tell a story that will stir a conversation. The day I turned 30, I asked myself what is that I will leave back to this world. From then, I have become conscious of my work more than ever. As a writer I write what has affected me in the hope that it might leave a trail to a better life for someone. At Aatish, our plays leave behind questions and begin a new conversation.

I firmly believe that a conversation is the beginning to a new thought and life. That is what I do, in my writing or street plays, bring in a new way to an old pattern. The audience can choose to hear or ignore. But I tell my story. And most of the time, the responses overwhelm me. There is nothing like young women trying to see life from a new lens. It is a difficult life. Writing as we all know does not make us rich (at least not me) and street theatre pays me nothing as of now. But the urge to tell a story each morning keeps me going. That I touched someone’s life, is something that makes me go through deep moments of self doubt. Yes, as confident and radiant I see from outside, there had been dark days, crying nights, but I wake up each morning and go to work.

I have learnt that it takes immense courage to tell your story each day. And I have moments of fear, but I tell myself each day, “Courage dear heart.” I add, “Just this day, show courage. Just today, wake up. Just today, shine.” And years go by this way.

It’s been an enriching journey!

In your work so far, you would have undoubtedly made some observations as to why so many women are not empowered. Could you share a few observations from your work so far?
In one word, it is conditioning. In India we do not bring up daughters with visions. We tell them to work hard, get a job but then you become what your husband or the notion of happy family allows you. We want our daughters to be pleasing and not to touch the hornet’s nest. We don’t give girls time or freedom to self explore. We condition them as an adage to a man. We have still not recognized that as a woman can have an individual life. We still club her personal life with success. We celebrate woman who give up everything. But do we question, if the woman really want to give it up all.

Our men are confused. They are conditioned to be the bread earner, the provider. They are yet to see many women in power. Power sharing is something our boys are yet to learn from their partners. The society laughs at a man who will quit his job to look after his children. Not each time a man might want to be the bread earner or a woman to be a child bearer. Our culture hardly allows any other narrative.

Unless the narrative changes, women empowerment will be a farfetched dream, because we become the stories we see, hear and finally tell ourselves about.

Would you believe that even as many women can and do make the earnest effort to work on their internal devices of self love and self esteem, extrinsic influences can be disparaging and antithetical to their interests? How does a woman work with her own goals, dreams and empowerment needs while coping with these constant messages that tell her she's not worthy of being an equal?

As I have earlier said we become the narratives. Women are judged on their characters. And the measures are ridiculous. We are shamed for almost everything. The constant message we get is that we are not good enough. It begins with looks, than our bodies (girls learn to hate their bodies too soon), character, relationships, work etc. Shame is our constant companion and not many women have seen powerful women in their families to become like them. Children see, children become. So, inspite of trying so hard, it becomes difficult to truly believe in self love or self esteem. It’s difficult to be healthy where everyone is running sick.

The only way is to keep at it. I still fight the demons of body images. But I believe, three generations makes one. I might not die as a completely self loving person, but I can start and teach that to my daughter and she to hers. Atleast I will be that bridge if not the final destination. One woman needs to change the narration, rest will catch. It always begins with one. One woman in the society, workplace or family needs to begin. Rest always catch up. Keep marching and one day you will realize you carried a generation in your shoulders. That’s how powerful you are.

By doing it each day, we shall overcome. This I know for sure!

Sudara's Story

Shannon | Image Credit: Krystal Marie Collins 
Sudara, an initiative that works through providing sustainable jobs for women to make their way out and to stay out of sex trafficking and slavery, was founded by Shannon Keith. In 2005, Sudara founder Shannon Keith took a trip to India that opened her eyes to a tragedy occurring daily to women and girls throughout the country. She could hardly believe what she witnessed in India’s Red Light Districts—modern day slavery. Shannon listened to story after story of young girls being sold into the sex trade by their families, orphans picked up off the street by pimps, and even young mothers just trying to get enough money to feed their children. Many were held against their will. Others were trapped by economic poverty. Worst of all were the stories of those who managed to escape the brothels only to return due to social stigma and having no other means to survive. Shannon returned home and gathered friends to help do something about it. The team knew that without safe, steady employment, these women stood little chance of surviving outside of the brothels. They identified a group of like-minded partners in India who were compelled to work together with any women looking for a way out of the Red Light Districts. Together, the team created a simple pattern that could be used to teach anyone wanting to learn how to sew. In 2006, Sudara hired the first 6 employees in their first-ever sewing center partnership and began teaching each woman the skills needed to become seamstresses and our first pair of PUNJAMMIES™ loungewear was produced. Stitch by stitch, the women gained confidence not only in their newfound trade, but also in their newfound hope and freedom. Since that time, our relationships have grown into multiple sewing center partnerships and hundreds of women gaining a new community and safe place to work and heal. Here is an interview with her!

1. Let's start with a little about you. We'd love to know more about you, your education, childhood and growing years, and your current work affiliation.

I grew up in Southern California, attending Pepperdine for my first two years of college and transferred to Gordon College [just outside of Boston] where I graduated in 1996.  I am currently the founder and CEO of Sudara, loving wife and proud mama of three kiddos [ nine year old twins and a five year old].  I'm an only child, I have loving parents with whom I am very close with and a very large, awesome extended family. My mother is one of seven kids and my grandparents are still both living, so family & sense of belonging is very important to me.

2. What inspired Sudara, the fashion brands?

Sudara was started with a divine inspiration of helping end sex slavery through job creation for survivors - the fashion part was really secondary. I was very inspired by the lovely textiles of India, and I thought if these women could make something lovely from these beautiful fabrics, then I could certainly sell their wares!

3. You chose to support survivors of Human Trafficking. What was the inspiration / reason behind choosing this particular cause? Would you like to share the story behind it?

I support survivors of sex trafficking in particular.  I found myself in a red light area in India and was confronted with the problem first hand. I looked at these women and children in the eyes, saw the hell that they were living in and couldn't look myself in the mirror or call myself a civilized human being if I didn't do something about this injustice and crimes against humanity.   

4. What were your key challenges? What kept you going despite them?

There have been many challenges along the way:  funding, cultural barriers to doing business Internationally, apathy, etc., but what keeps me [and our awesome Sudara team] going are the women and children we serve in India [they are the reason our company exists!]... looking into their bright eyes and seeing life transformation with our own eyes when we visit the centers.  We just spend 2 weeks in Feb. in India as a team of 12.  And also our awesome Sudara customers, who get what we are trying to do, partner with us, and cheer us on to keep up the good work.  We truly see Sudara as a partnership between the women we serve, our team and our customers- each with an equally valuable role to play in ending sex trafficking through sustainable and dignified job creation.  There is a better way to do business and we are extremely proud and grateful to be doing it the Sudara way.

5. Would you like to share any positive anecdotes through your work?

Teamwork and collaboration (not competition) is how we can leverage our collective efforts to solve social issues through good and ethical business.  Everyone has a part to play and the conscious customers are at the very fulcrum of this movement...monumental shift really, as a force for good.

6. How can we support your initiative better?

One of the best things to do is buy products from Sudara and other like-minded companies who are actually creating deep and transformational impact through sustainable job creation, not just giving away handouts, .  When women (and men) have jobs to support themselves and their families, everything changes.  Also, it helps to demand that your favorite "go-to" brands have a transparent and virtuous supply chain. Iif they don't, you should take your business elsewhere, because you have ethical choices and you can align your spending power with your values.  You vote for or against freedom with each purchase that you make.... and we as humans are consumers and make multiple votes per day.

End taboos around menstruation

Recently, two young women died in menstrual huts in Achham, a hilly district in far west Nepal, in under a month. 

On November 18, Dambara Upadhyay, 21 from Timilsena village in Accham in Farwest Nepal was discovered dead in the shed while following a practice called Chhaupadi, a tradition that banishes menstruating women to live in sheds outside the houses. (The image shows a menstrual hut where Dambara Upadhyay died. Image credits: Shiva Raj Dhungana / Achcham) Another incident of a similar nature took place on December 17. A fifteen-year-old girl Roshani Tiruwa of Gajra Village Development Committee-7 died in menstrual hut.

Deaths in the menstrual huts are sporadic in the far western region of Nepal. In less than a month, two young women have died in the menstrual hut in far-western region of Nepal. These are not the first of their kind - and no one can say they won't happen again in the future.

Last year, Bhawana Malla of Khoya village was also found dead in a similar shed while Sharmila Bhul, (16), was also found dead in her menstrual shed three years ago, according to local media reports. Since 2007, at least eight women have died in Achham while practicing Chaupadi.

Though exact statistics are not available, deaths of women are reported each year as a result of exposure, bites by poisonous snakes or scorpions or animal attacks while residing in the exposed Chaupadi sheds, according to a field bulletin published by United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator’s Office.

Chhaupadi practice and menstrual huts 
Menstrual hut was constructed away from home.
In the picture we can see both menstrual hut and her home.
 Shiva Raj Dhungana/Achham

Taboos and stigmas surrounding menstruation prevail throughout the country where Hindu tradition is followed. The situation is worse in the far west region where thousands of girls and women are banished to menstrual huts or cattle-sheds or makeshift huts during their periods.
Chhaupadi dates back many centuries, and has its roots in Hindu taboos around menstruation. In the local language, the meaning of “chhau” is a woman’s condition of being untouchable and “padi” means being. The term denotes being untouchable.

Menstrual huts are an extreme form of seclusion. In western Nepal, menstruating women sleep in a small hut constructed away from their homes. It is because of a belief that they are impure and God becomes angry if they remain in the house and touch things the others in the family use, or come in contact with the male members of the home. Women are made to stay there so that they can’t touch other persons, cattle, green vegetables and plants, or fruits.

Generally, these huts are small single-room buildings with small doors. Most huts are constructed either without windows or with very small ones. These huts have poor sanitation and ventilation. As a result, most women die of suffocation or snake or scorpion bites. During my visit to various districts in western Nepal, many women and girls shared their fear of being attacked by wild animals and snake bites while being isolated in these menstrual huts.

Banishment is outlawed

In a precedential verdict, Nepal’s Supreme Court banned Chhaupadi in 2005. Despite being outlawed, Nepali women in various parts of the country continue to suffer in the name of traditions.

Why? It is because law enforcement agencies often perceive taboos surrounding menstruation as a private family issue. But it is not. It is a purely legal issue. In my personal experience, officials at government agencies do not want to punish people who have been practicing this tradition.

I see weakness on part of law enforcement agencies. These agencies should not allow such a tradition to continue in the name of social pressure or any other pretext. In fact, Nepal is a signatory to the international instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As Chhaupadi practice is apparently against human rights, it is the responsibility of the government to abolish the tradition to translate its commitment of respecting CEDAW and UDHR to action.

It is a human right issue

We often hear people saying that stigma surrounding menstruation is tied to traditions, culture, social norms and values or religious practices. This logic is not an excuse to continue this inhuman tradition.

Isolating women from society and the family during their menstrual periods is not about tradition, but inhuman behavior towards women. It is not cultural. It is a human rights issue. It is not a part of religion but a superstition. It is against women's rights.  

An attempt to smash taboos around menstruation should not be perceived as an attempt to challenge cultural traditions or religious beliefs or social harmony. It should be perceived as an attempt of upholding human rights.

Cost of inaction is not affordable

Officials argue that ‘changing mindsets and social attitudes is a time-taking process’. But the question is: how many more women must die before social mindsets and attitudes are changed? Should we continue any tradition at the cost of women’s lives?

Blaming the vague things like attitude, culture, customs and traditions is not a way out. The way forward is that the government should come up with strong commitment to end this inhuman practice. As it is already outlawed by the Supreme Court, the government should not treat the act of banishing women in a cow shed as a private family issue. It is apparently a legal issue. And the government must act accordingly.

I believe that Nepal can afford the cost to abolish Chhaupadi tradition/practice. But the country cannot afford the cost of inaction. Women will get disproportionately affected if the government’s inaction to bring this tradition continues.

Together we can smash taboos

We should not let more women to die in the name of tradition or culture. The government, civil society members, political leaders and other stakeholders in the society should work together to bring this practice to an end.

Men also should engage in the campaign to end the inhuman practices. Menstrual taboos are not matter of women only. It is matter of societies. It is matter of countries. And when the United Nations General Assembly formally adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, it is a matter of concern for world community as well.

Together we can smash taboos and ensure that women are free to lead a life of dignity at the time of period in Nepal and other parts of the world.

In the end

In Hinduism, menstruating women are considered to be “impure”. It is not belief but superstition. I always ask a question: how can an act of banishing women to menstrual hut or cow shed to die be “pure”? Menstruation is a natural process. It is pure. It is clean. It is natural. The only thing that is impure is an act that goes against the norms of humanity. We cannot be a “civilized” and “pure” society until our fellow women die in menstrual hut in the name of social tradition or religion.

Written by Pragya Lamsal
(Pragya Lamsal is Nepal-based development professional working on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and disability issue. Email: She tweets as: @pragyalamsal )

Building futures with love

Bharti Singh Chauhan
Bharti Singh Chauhan is the founder of the Praveen Lata Sansthan, an initiative that works for the betterment of women and children.  

I was born in a middle class family in Jaipur. Initially, my family was very well-to-do. But, one incident changed everything. My brother met with an accident and was handicapped for life, and as a result, we suffered a great financial loss. Soon, it became clear that there was no money for my education. My father told me that he couldn't afford to pay my school fees when I was in class nine, owing to the major responsibilities at home. But, I wanted to study and did not lose hope.

I began to stitch the falls for sarees for women to be able to pay for my education in Class 10. By this time, my responsibilities had risen, as my father had had an accident and suffered a vision issue, which resulted in the loss of his job. Now, along with stitching falls for sarees, I had begun taking tuitions for children and held down a part time job in a lingerie store. My mother knew the importance of education as she was uneducated herself. This was why she wanted me to study and become independent. It wasn’t easy, but she motivated me. Between taking up jobs like stitching, putting mehndi for other women, selling lingerie and the like, I managed to deposit my fees and somehow completed my education.

However, things were not smooth as my personal safety had begun taking a beating. Men who worked with me tried to abuse me. If not for that, I heard a lot of abusive comments and words from my relatives when I went out of home to work, and when I went to the lingerie shop to work. This spread negativity in my family, and they began to pressure me to get married.

I had a clear vision of my future and was not willing to listen to any negativity. I continued my studies and eventually went to college. After graduation, I began to work in a small outsourced bank, and then went to a newsprint media house in Rajasthan, called Rajasthan Patrika, and later, Dainik Bhaskar. With time, my hard work began to pay off, and I found myself in a leading Telecom MNC.
I had two ladies in my life who were my role models. One is my mother, because of whom I gained inspiration to continue my studies. Her positive vibes helped me fight all odds in society. I became a leader. The other lady was my mother in law, who was a victim of domestic violence. 

My father in law had illegal marriages and continued them till I got married to his son. My mother in law was highly educated and was the principal of a school. She never took the initiative to talk about it. She tolerated it, but whenever she talked to me, she motivated me to be a supporting hand to many. She told people like her wanted to take a step, but traditions, principles, and mindsets can only be changed when we have a supporting hand and that called for action. I lost both of them after my stint with the Vodafone Foundation working for Street life at Mumbai for Salaam Balaak Trust in 2012. In 2012, I lost my mother, Lata, and my mother-in-law, Praveen. In their memory, I decided to take my cause further. I set up the Praveen Lata Sansthan along with my Husband, Bhuvanendra Singh Chauhan, investing my savings so that I could offer more services to the needy. The Praveen Lata Sansthan is working for Holistic Development of Child Welfare, Women Empowerment and Rural Development across Rajasthan and Delhi. Although working on all the above parameters, one of our main focus goals remains Gender Equality, Education and Health.

 I see so many men and boys who will respect their mothers and sisters but will disrespect their wives and vice versa. Or, the boys might respect the women in their lives but will eye other women with lust, disgust or disrespect. So, we first need to change their mindset towards women as a community constructively We tell everyone not to discriminate, but the fact is that bias and discrimination start from your own home. And, it’s not just in the rural areas but in the urban sections of the society, too. It’s the mothers who discriminate between their son and daughter. They will teach their daughters everything, and would hand-feed her son and make him unworthy. We are a country of culture, and we imbibe values and morals from our elders. So, it is imperative that from the early age, we inculcate the right values. And, I believe, Education is the only tool that shall ensure girls to be independent which will help them realize their own importance.

Back when I began working as a teen, and even as I began to grow economically and financially, I was fully aware of the fact that there were many children who suffered many difficulties like me. I made sure to work with these children, volunteering my time with NGOs as a teen. But in 2013, when I realized that I could make an impact on my own, I founded the Praveen Lata Sansthan. I invested all my savings and began to work at the grass root level. I worked with slums and communities for the holistic development and welfare of children and the empowerment of women. I have been able to educate over 17,000 girls on personal safety through workshops, over 1,55,000 people at community level on the importance of saving and educating girls. I work on stopping child marriage through road shows and street theatre, with the help of volunteers. Right now, I’m working on supporting over 150 children with their education, grooming and development, across various slums.

I have been given the distinguished opportunity of being recognized for my work. I was the winner of the World of Difference Program by Vodafone Foundation in 2012 for working for Street Kids at Mumbai and is known as Ambassador for Vodafone Foundation. I am also an Ambassador for the International  Girl Rising Campaign, which was launched by First  Lady Michelle Obama, and is promoting  the education of girls in Rajasthan. I was recently recognized by Honourable President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee and Smt. Maenka Gandhi for my contribution towards society under the category of Women’s Empowerment. I was also recognized by the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare Department and the Government of India in association with Facebook as one of the 100 Women Achievers of India, under the category of Women’s Empowerment. I am now the State Chairperson of the Women’s Economic Forum All Ladies League (Rajasthan).

I am also working on the “Spotless Dame - Celebrate the Red Droplets Initiative.” It started when I took a stand to talk about the taboo around menstruation. We started group conversations and built understanding around the need for women in the 21st Century for their healthcare. We not only started awareness drives, but also helped by giving them a yearly supply of pads to the girls, in order to build a sustainable model. Another campaign we work on is called Respect S.H.E. (Solicitude for Her Esteem), which focuses on encouraging men and boys to provide the needed support to the women in their lives so they can rise to their potential. Men and boys are sensitized towards the need of a woman and how it can uplift the society altogether. The campaign gained international attention and several organizations added to it by participating. My main aim is to make Rajasthan a safer state. And, I believe it can only happen when women are educated and empowered, plus the men, too, understand the importance of supporting the women of their life. This is why I also run campaigns for men, especially, young boys!

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