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Chhaupadi (Nepali: छाउपडी )

It is a social tradition associated with the menstrual taboo in the western part of Nepal. The tradition prohibits Hindu women from participating in normal family activities while menstruating, as they are considered "impure". The women are kept out of the house and have to live in a cattle shed or in a hut. This period of time lasts between ten and eleven days when an adolescent girl has her first period; thereafter, the duration is between four and seven days each month. As per the social custom, women who are unmarried have to stay six days in the hut, married women having both a son and a daughter have to stay five days, and women who have only daughters will have to live for seven days in the hut. During this time, women are forbidden to touch men or even to enter the courtyard of their own homes. They are barred from consuming milk, yogurt, butter, meat, and other nutritious foods, for fear they will forever pollute those goods. The women must survive on a diet of dry foods, salt, and rice. They cannot use warm blankets and are allowed only a small rug; most commonly, this is made of jute (also known as burlap). They are also restricted from going to school or performing daily functions like taking a bath. They are not even allowed to bathe from the tap, in wells or rivers during that period of time. In some villages, there are separate taps and wells for the women. They are completely barred from going near the temple; if a road is even linked to a temple, a menstruating woman has to choose a different path.

This system comes from the superstition of impurity during the menstruation period. In this superstitious logic, if a menstruating woman touches a tree, it will never again bear fruit; if she consumes milk, the cow will not give any more milk; if she reads a book, Saraswati, the goddess of education, will become angry; if she touches a man, he will be sick. There is a strong belief among locals that if women are allowed to stay inside the home during their menstrual period it would bring misfortunes for members of family and the family members will fall sick. Male members of the family believe the custom must be followed to avoid any bad luck. Senior members of families and village elders are firm in this tradition, while the young, educated generation cannot gather the courage to challenge this custom.

Reports indicate that more than 90 percent of women in Nepal’s far-western and mid-western districts follow the Chhaupadi tradition, whether due to social pressure or according to their own wishes.  As they are compelled to sleep in poorly constructed and dirty huts, these women face health problems and other risks. Woman who live in the huts are always at risk of diarrhea, pneumonia, and respiratory diseases. While living in the isolated huts, they also face the danger of attack by wild animals, snake bite or even abuse and rape by their fellow villagers. Women have died while performing the practice, including two young women in late 2016 who died from smoke inhalation and "carbon monoxide poisoning" from lighting fires to heat the shelters during cold weather.
Following pressure from rights activists, last year Nepal’s parliament enacted a law labeling Chhaupadi a criminal act. As per the new law, people who force their family members to live in sheds are subject to legal actions. Nepal’s Supreme Court had directed the government to make laws criminalizing Chhaupadi all the way back in 2005; it took more than a decade to formulate the laws. Now that the laws are in place, the challenge is in effective implementation. It is not easy to implement laws to prevent long- standing customs like Chhaupadi. In comparison to the past, there have been some changes in urban areas but such practices are still rampant in rural areas. In this region, it is very  difficult to change the mindset of even educated people. Local politicians and political parties can play a vital role in creating awareness at the local level about the harms of this custom. However, politicians are often reluctant to highlight this issue because they fear of losing the support of common people. Parliamentarians rarely raise such issues in the national parliament; instead they want to conceal such social issues. Some non-governmental organizations at the local level and some government agencies are creating awareness, asking people to shun Chhaupadi, but due to the lack of support and backing from politicians, their campaigns have not been effective.
Source: Kamal Dev Bhattarai (Kathmandu-based writer and journalist)

Rajabala