Hiding Periods: Deadly Menstruation Huts Still Used Because Periods Are "Impure"
All over the world, the stigmatization of menstruation is still very prevalent, and often leads to the isolation or banishment of women while they are on their period. In 2005, Nepal’s Supreme Court banned “chhaupadi”, a practice that involves banishing menstruating women from their homes and forcing them to stay in very secluded and isolated closet-sized huts. These huts are often shared with animals, are cold, and are made of mud and rock. Every year, at least one or two women die due to exposure, animal bites, smoke inhalation, etc. There have also been several reports of sexual assault on these women, as men prey on them knowing they are secluded and vulnerable.
Last year in August, as the 2005 ban of this practice has had little effect, Nepal took it a step further as to criminalize the menstruation ritual. Anyone who forces menstruating women to enter these huts can now face up to three months in jail and a fine of only $30.00. However, this practice is still prevalent mostly in the rural areas of Nepal. Just three weeks ago, a mother and her two children died due to suffocation in a menstrual hut, on a very cold icy winter night. The three of them were likely trying to stick together to stay warm, but the menstrual huts are so small and congested. Regardless of the law and criminalization imposed, a 2010 survey found that as much as 50 percent of women aged 15-49 in Nepal’s mid-western and far western regions still follow chhaupadi.
This tradition stems from the widespread and taboo concept that women are “impure” while they are menstruating, in fear that they will contaminate their homes, or anger the gods and their families. The practice has been observed to take many different forms in Nepal, each to different extents. For instance, some women are not allowed to be in their homes at all while they are menstruating, while others are allowed to be in their homes but not in the kitchen, or areas of worship. Not only are they often times banished to these areas or restricted from areas in their own homes, but they are also not allowed to see or touch any males, or any food while they are menstruating. The extremities of this ritual vary depending the area of Nepal that they live in. In western areas where the ritual is still very prevalent, they are also limited to access of wells and water, and not allowed to touch cattle, plants, etc.
In an article posted in The Guardian on January 9th, 2017, Pragya Lamsal describes her experiences living in Nepal as a menstruating woman,
“I was 13 years old with a red ribbon cascading on my oiled hair when I got my first period. I thought I had dysentery. When I asked my mother about it, she slammed a bunch of rags in my hand and said “nani ta nachune bhais” – my daughter, you become untouchable [you are menstruating]. She pulled me inside my brother’s room. I remember it was dark and creepy. Then came a list of restrictions: “Do not touch the kitchen and worshiping area”, and “Stay away from your father and other relatives”. I had to stay alone in brother’s room for a week. What hurt the most was not being able to see my father or any male members of my family during those days.”
Activists as well as more progressive members of Nepal's society are still working to eradicate this dehumanizing practice, as the law has had very little effect in stopping chhaupadi, as women are still being forced into these huts and some of them are still dying. In an article written by the Toronto Star on January 12, 2019, the former lawmaker who drafted the idea of criminalizing those who force women into menstrual huts, Rewati Raman Bhandari, says the ban of this ritual is still far too subdued and that “tradition is stronger than the law”.
It has been a couple years since the criminalization of this ritual, however chhaupadi has taken the lives of four people since the beginning of 2019. 21 year old Parwati Bogati, from the country's western Doti district, is the most recent girl to die during this ritual due to smoke inhalation.
"I was told it was a sin to touch books during menstruation so I did not go to school during the three days of my period. I used to wonder why I was not allowed to touch books. I missed school and I wasn't the only one. Many girls in my village faced the same problem...When I went looking for a room to rent, the landlord asked me if I had begun menstruating. When I truthfully replied that I had, I was turned away. I wanted to cry, I did not know what to do. If I went back home, I would miss my studies but it looked like I would not find a room to rent," says Krishnamaya, a radio journalist from Nepal who advocates against chhaupadi.
It is important that more light is being shown on the ritual of chhaupadi and understand that menstruation stigmatization is seen all over the world, in different forms. Whether it is being banished to the huts, or not being allowed to touch food in your house, both are violations of basic human rights and "driven by social pressure and guilt."