Nepal: Eliminating A Harmful Practice Rooted in Tradition
In the most rural and remote regions of nepal, known as the Karnali region, menstruating women are considered impure. Traditions and, in part, religion, force women to leave their homes to live in mud huts (or worse) during their period. The practice is known as Chhaupadi.
Many death, diseases and cases of emotional and physical suffering go undocumented. In this darkness, there is light. Several villages are starting to declare themselves as “Chhaupadi free”.
This story isn’t only about this practice; it’s about different communities on the road to eliminating Chhaupadi. It’s about the realities that the women shared with me – why some villages are struggling to let go of this tradition, and why some are rejoicing with a new future.
The government, under much international pressure, has made Chhaupadi a criminal offence for those who push women out of their homes while menstruating. Both fees and jail time are imposed on the offender(s). After travelling to various villages of Karnali, it was clear that law enforcement doesn’t reach this isolated and inaccessible place – much like other services such as health and education.
I visited three villages, each with different relationships to the practice of Chhaupadi. It was interesting to see how each village expressed their opinions about Chhaupadi. One of the three villages was not yet ready to eliminate the Chhaupadi practice. When I asked them why they practice Chhaupadi, they told me, “we must do this or else we are punished with misfortune”. The women felt that not practising would upset their god; they felt like this is something that had to be done – even at the expense of their suffering.
After speaking to these women, I felt a tension. They still expressed that during the days they practised Chhaupadi, they felt lonely and isolated. There wasn’t an absence of personal and physical pain, yet despite this, they didn’t feel ready to let go of this tradition, rooted in the idea that women could be cursed.
While it was heavy to visit a village that still holds onto the Chhaupadi practice, the second village we visited felt pulled in different directions. The women were honest and open to discussing how Chhaupadi was a painful experience, one woman recalls:
“…I got a skin disease through this, and I had to spend money to go to the hospital. My small baby suffered too. The baby had to go to the shed with because I cannot leave my baby until at least three months after birth.”
One woman describes this tension between keeping and letting go of Chhaupadi when she says, “I was not given food or allowed to take a bath with the public water. I had to walk far to the river. My clothes were dusty, and I had to sleep in the shed with this dust. I don’t think Chhaupadi is good for our health.”
The efforts of Action Works Nepal and support of European Union became clear: awareness of the demerits of Chhaupadi in the community and empowering women and girls to fight against the practice it is critical.
The last village was Chhaupadi free, meaning that they abandoned the practice. The women rejoiced with dance and music – even creating a song about eliminating the practice of Chhaupadi. The women wore matching red and sat in a circle – I felt their unified strength. They recalled their stories of when they practised Chhaupadi and recounted their past in revulsion. They spoke honestly about the emotional trauma they went through – depressions, anxiety, shame, stigma.
What I learned is that even this village, celebrating and rejoicing a new life without the Chhaupadi practice, was once in the same “place” as the first village – they too were holding onto a long-standing ancient Hindu tradition.
There is an apparent struggle between past and present – to keep hold of a long tradition or to progress towards a new future. With the efforts to bring to light information about health, hygiene, and women’s rights change could be felt and seen.