Bhawani Thapa, 17, from Baluwatar is not allowed to enter kitchen, and worship when during her period because she is considered 'impure' and 'untouchable'. While medical science reports sleep disturbance during the menstrual cycle for girls and women, Bhawani cannot go to her bed after menstruation. Leaving her bed, which is uneasy for many, she has to find an alternative. Born and brought up in a well-off family in the heart of Kathmandu, Bhawani must strictly adhere to her 'family values' as ordered by her mother and grandmother. However, she is unable to share her suffering. She says: “I know it is a bad practice, but I am still forced to obey simply to respect my mom and grandma."
Shockingly, RabinaMagar an undergraduate student from Baneshwor, Kathmandu, was denied to join her father's funeral simply because she was during her period. People around Rabina hardly understood her pain and suffering; she had no option left but screaming in agony during her dad's death. It is ridiculous that a lady professor (name not disclosed) based in Kathmandu who is supposed to educate, empower, and encourage others; is still suffering from menstruation taboo. Recalling her cousin’s wedding last time, the professor, when asked about her experience said: “I just sat on a plastic chair 50 feet away from the party venue as my family had a clue that I was on my period ".
It is sad that the culture of menstrual untouchability commonly called 'chhaupadi' in western part of Nepal is also being practiced in the capital city Kathmandu almost in a similar fashion. As the famous adage goes: 'darkness under the lamp,' just below the lamp lies the darkness, the girls and women of the Kathmandu valley, when on period, are forbidden from touching plants, practicing puja, participating in rituals, cooking, mingling with mates, and members of the family. They are forced to follow a different version of 'chhaupadi'. It is 'invisible', and goes unnoticed.
Chhaupadi – a traditional practice that banishes menstruating girls, and women to mud-huts, makeshifts or sheds mostly in the far-flung villages of the hilly districts of mid and far-western region of Nepal often hits the headlines. The practice has been outlawed by the Supreme Court of Nepal in 2005, and the Criminal Code passed by the Parliament in August, 2017 and criminalizes this 'culture'. However, it is still socially accepted, and pervasively practiced in the mid and far western parts of Nepal.
Chhaupadi – the practice of isolation in the federal capital – Kathmandu valley takes a different form which is hardly discussed, and researched. Menstruation – an inevitable sign of physical maturity and fertility, and a normal physiological process has widely been considered as a source of impurity, and a social taboo among city dwellers as well.
A research report, "Revisiting the status of women in Nepal (1981-2012)" prepared by a team of eight experts reveals the improved gender relations in urban areas where educational index is higher. As the same time, the report also highlights that the dominance of patriarchal psyche is heavily prevalent. The practice of untouchability during menstrual cycle is found widely practiced in the 'civilized city' - Kathmandu. It is one of the validated indicators of the prevalence of patriarchal domination. SukritiThapa who is currently in Australia, echoes: 'I often feel guilty while on vacation in Kathmandu as I have to make false statements as my family wonders whether or not I am 'impure' or 'unclean'. She adds, "I am considered 'impure' and 'polluted' when I am on period and that I cannot enjoy my life freely."
A research published in the Nepal Journal of Multidisciplinary Research (NJMR) in 2019 reveals that 72% of the girls in chhaupaid hit districts practice exile, or Chhaupadi, during their menstruation, including 4% exiled to traditional Chhau sheds, 82% to livestock sheds, and 14% to courtyards outside their home. Consequently, a number of death cases have been widely reported. While there is no data available from a systematic research with respect to the girls, and women practicing a culture of untouchability in the Kathmandu valley, stories, and statements we compiled suggest that the practice is widespread, and seems 'inevitable' in the valley.
The Kathmandu valley in terms of development index ranks the highest. According to UNESCO statistics (2018) for example female literacy rate from Kathmandu (aged 15 years old and above) is 59.72% which is higher than other districts of Nepal. The Nepal Census in 2011 also shows 86.3% of people of Kathmandu were literate while national literacy was 57.4%. Further, a recent report of the Ministry of Education shows a total number of students (1-12 grades) in Kathmandu are higher than any other districts with 192066 girls and 202585 boys in the year 2074 BS. There is no development index needed to confirm, and corroborate that Kathmandu is one of the advanced districts in terms of education.
Unfortunately, patriarchal mindset of the Kathmandu valley has influencedand shaped perception of girls and women badly. Hence, superstition is deeply rooted. In the valley for example, girls and women observe the Rishi Panchami' once a year and that they venture out often at night to bathe themselves in animal dung and urine to 'wash away' and atone for 'sins' wittingly or unwittingly they committed during menstruation. If not, they fear that they will otherwise be reborn as a prostitute. The crux behind chhaupadi practice in cities, and villages is nearly the same although they follow in different ways. It is still widely believed by people not only in remote villages but in cities that if a woman touches fruits during her period, fruits will fall before they are ripe. If she fetches water, the well/pond will dry up. A god or goddess gets angry if she violates 'chhaupadi practice' and could result a shorter life, and death of livestock etc.
In the midst of digital world, where are we heading to? Cases of Bhawani and Rabina in the federal capital provide clue about the situation that girls and women in remote villages are facing today. We should continue not only tearing down chhau huts but building a new belief system with a series of well-designed campaigns. Building a new belief system, and a new worldview require a concerted crusade which is challenging but not out of question.