Monday, December 26, 2016

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 )