Safalta Rokaya sits atop a thin blanket, haphazardly spread across the strewn hay, that covers the mud floors of a squalid cowshed. This is where she is resigned to live – amongst the livestock outside – every time she has her period in a practice in Nepal known as chhaupadi.
“I was embarrassed to tell my parents about my period,” the young girl revealed in a documentary by the Guardian.
“I was scared that telling them would mean staying in the cowshed and I didn’t know if I could do it. I feel horrible here. The cow dung smells and the animals step on us. Different kinds of insects breed here and we can get diseases from them. The dirt and hay get stuck all over my body. When night falls, men harass us. They come here but they haven’t done anything to me yet because my parents beat them up and they run away. After my first experience in the shed, I wish that I didn’t have a period.”
Chhaupadi is an ancient custom, which has been passed down through the years, in some parts of Nepal. Women and girls are banished – to live outside in mud huts – during their period or immediately after childbirth. In far-flung corners where superstition and folklore is rife, it is believed that misfortune or bad health will befall the household if the female is not exiled. The word chhaupadi means “untouchable being” and is rooted in the idea that during menstruation, girls and women are “impure” or “dirty”.
A local shaman told the filmmakers that the practice cannot be abolished, and that the women will become possessed if they chose to stay in their homes instead of the sheds outside.
Despite the practice being made illegal in Nepal since 2005, the custom has still prevailed in rural villages due to androcentric values and general misconception. It thrives because of a complex system of beliefs, which encompasses a wide range of restrictive practices for menstruation, ranging from not being able to touch certain things, to enter the kitchen, to sleep in the same bed or room as their husbands, or to attend religious ceremonies. And in its most extreme form, women and girls are evacuated to the cowshed for the duration of their period.
Dr. Sara Parker, who works in Development Studied Sociology at Liverpool John Moores University, has been part of the research team for the British Academy GCRF funded project, Dignity Without Danger, where they explored restrictive practices of chhaupadi across all seven provinces in Nepal. She acknowledged that the most fanatical traditions are only practiced in some areas, and that it does not mean that all women and girls in Nepal are subjected to the custom.
“The deaths of young women and girls in Nepal in the goth (cowsheds) has received international media attention and highlights the devastating impact of this practice,” explained Dr. Parker.
“There is no one single experience as beliefs and traditions vary across ethnic groups and are influenced by many factors, including geographical factors and the role of local religious leaders. Measures to challenge the stigmas and taboos need to take into consideration the local situation.”
Dr. Parker insisted that the only way forward is for both Government and NGOs to work with local people to devise solutions that would incorporate awareness campaigns and education – not only in schools but also in the wider communities. Banning the practice of the cowshed might not be sufficient since many women still believe harm will come to their family and village should they not adhere to the tradition. Yet, by subjecting themselves to chhaupadi means they are willingly putting their safety at risk. Reports have even emerged that in some areas, women are forced to sleep in the jungle, leaving them even more exposed to danger and harm.
“To prevent further deaths, the Nepali authorities must immediately put in place a comprehensive strategy, designed in consultation with Nepali women’s rights groups, to eliminate Chhaupadi. This should include effective enforcement of existing laws criminalizing Chhaupadi and widespread education programmes in affected areas,” Niranjan Thapaliya, Nepal Section Director of Amnesty International said in a statement released earlier this year.
“Chhaupadi is a violation of the right to be free from gender discrimination and gender-based violence which are guaranteed under the constitution of Nepal and international human rights treaties, including the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.”
Whilst there may be no single solution, it remains a human rights issue that needs a range of interventions. For the deconstruction of the myth that menstruation is a source of impurity, local communities and leaders must come together to tackle this prejudice, which has denied generations of women and girls their right to a safe and dignified period.