Chains of chhaupadi

Published On: November 11, 2017 12:51 AM NPT By: Usha Pokharel & Ajaya Budathoki

Have you noticed your daughter or wife become virtually invisible each month? They are observing chhaupadi right there  

Just the thought of chhaupadi makes us shudder. I am sure you know of women in western Nepal—in Doti, Accham, Bajura, Kailali, Dailekh, Bajhang, Baitadi and Dadeldhura districts—are forced to live in small, cold, damp and unhygienic sheds in the woods, or in animal sheds or mud huts that are completely separate from the house, for five days every month when they are menstruating. Women are considered impure and untouchable when they are menstruating. Not just in western Nepal, in other parts of Nepal too women are instructed to spend the five days in isolation in a separate area of the house. This is one reason girls miss school in the villages and some do in cities too.

We don’t see any logic in such a restriction, but people justify it as compliance with their religious belief. They believe if a menstruating woman fetches water, the well will dry up. If she touches a tree, it will never again bear fruit or will die; if she consumes milk, the cow will stop giving milk; if she reads a book, Saraswati, the goddess of education, will become angry; if she touches a man, he will be ill. So as a prevention women are kept in isolation. Such beliefs have no rhyme or reason but they wreak havoc in the lives of many women. They are tortured just by the thought of having to spend some time each month in truly awful living conditions. 

The new Civil Code is strict, stipulating a three-month jail term or a fine of Rs 3,000 
or both. 

Women in these sheds are subjected to extreme cold, and they have poor supply of food, water, light and oxygen. The risk of various infectious diseases like diarrhea, respiratory diseases and malnutrition is always there. They are also sitting targets for predatory animals and reptiles. It is almost a fight for survival each month. Some make it, some don’t. Their access to water taps and wells is limited, too. I feel sorry for all women who have to endure such hardship every month. But there have been many attempts to abolish this tradition. 

Harsher and harsher 
On May 2, 2005, the Supreme Court outlawed chhaupadi and issued a directive to the government to formulate laws eliminating the practice. In 2008, the Ministry of Women, Child and Social Welfare promulgated guidelines (Chhaupadi Pratha Unmulan Nirdesika) to eradicate chhaupadi nationally. Article 20 of the Interim Constitution (2007) reads, “No one shall be exploited in the name of any custom tradition and usage or in any manner whatsoever”. This provides further legal backing to efforts aimed at ending chhaupadi. Still the implementation of legal provisions was not satisfactory. 

The Constitution of Nepal 2072 Article 38 (3) has the same provision, with the additional component of compensation for the victims. Likewise, the Civil Criminal Code 2017 Section 168 (3) criminalizes the chhaupadi system. The code is stricter still, stipulating a three-month jail term or a fine of Rs 3,000 or both for those who force women into chhaupadi. In case of a civil servant keeping women in chhaupadi, there will be three additional months of imprisonment. The code itself will come into effect from August 17, 2018.  

According to the Constitution of Nepal and the Criminal Code 2017 chhaupadi is illegal. This was followed by the Supreme Court order along with the guidelines to eradicate chhaupadi. Despite all this, it’s still practiced throughout the far-west and moderately throughout Nepal. This shows that there is a huge gap between law making and law implementation. The Guidelines to Eradicate Chhaupadi (2008) envisioned 10 different committees at District and Municipality/VDC levels to run different programs.  The government has yet to implement them. According to a recent government survey, even today there are hundreds of menstrual huts in Dailekh district alone. Strict laws have pushed many people to use dark corners of the house or cattle sheds as an option. The law is only helping change the form of violence but not reforming the condition itself. So, now, the question is: what can be done? 

What next?
Just having a stricter law does not solve the problem. Then again, making people aware of the scientific part of menstruation and introducing rights-based educational awareness in rural communities regarding the new laws might make a difference. We all understand that implementing the new provision in Criminal Code that outlaws chhaupadi will be difficult. So how do women go about it? Do mothers, daughters, daughters-in-law, and wives have enough courage to even think of complaining against their own fathers, fathers-in-law and husbands?  From what I know of our women folk, they are unlikely to revolt against their own family members, making them liable of both fine and imprisonment. Considering that our society is still patriarchal, the first priority is for men to understand the adverse consequences of the practice, both health-wise and legally. 
For that elected representatives along with local religious leaders of the community need to be mobilized. The newly elected local representatives need to develop programs targeted at eradicating chhaupadi. For this they might need to emphasize the fact that change must start from the house of these leaders so that it will help locals change their attitude too. I understand it is a difficult battle ahead. Especially when the fight is between custom and law.  For instance, Social Practice (Reform) Act was enacted four decades ago but it still has not been implemented. 

Finally, you may be thinking, why are we telling this? You all know about it and you feel, ‘it’s too bad that they have to go through it’. Then again, are you aware that chhaupadi exists right under your nose in your home? Shocked? Don’t be. Yes it does in moderate levels in all of our homes. Have you noticed your daughter or wife become virtually invisible each month? They are observing chhaupadi right there. If you don’t believe me, ask them. Of course they will avoid answering your question. Order them to stop following those unnecessary rituals and start leading a normal life. 
Change starts from your house. Change is difficult but it is the beginning of goodness that follows. It is entirely up to the men in the family to make an effort to improve the quality of life for the women in your household. You can have your women cook and enjoy dinner at the table together with you throughout the year. Believe me they will thank you for that. Of course you did not know but now that you do, that is the least you can do for your wives and daughters.

Pokharel is an educationist and author of several children’s books and Budathoki works as a legal Assistant at Transnational Law House;

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