How many girls must die before we realize that Chhaupadi in all its forms must stop? Three-month jail time or Rs 3,000 fine is not enough to stop this brutal practice
Globally, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is celebrated every year on 25 November. On this occasion, the United Nations launched sixteen days of activism to advocate for gender equality and elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. Statistically, Nepal falls at the bottom on gender equality index and more than one in five women have experienced some form (physical, mental, sexual) of violence in their lifetime.
Besides domestic violence, the secondary treatment girls and women receive every month during their periods has been recognized as a form of violence.
Period of banishment
In our culture, periods are considered impure. A Hindu girl, during period, is forbidden to sit together to eat with her family. She is not allowed to go to a temple or enter a kitchen. In some households, she cannot touch the male members of the family. In other cases, menstruating women are not allowed to share a bed with their husbands. Girls and women on their periods are often considered untouchable. Ironically, they break their backs doing loads of dishes and laundry outside the kitchen.
Hindu women and girls practice a range of menstrual restrictions every month, but the most extreme practice is the one in which menstruating girls are secluded—the practice called Chhaupadi, which prevails primarily in mid and far-western Nepal. Girls and women are sent to live in an animal shed during their menstrual cycle.
Earlier this year, we heard about women in Chhaupadi dying from snake bites. Yet the practice continues. Recently, another woman died of suffocation in animal hut where she was sent during her period. Yet the practice continues.
Nepal outlawed Chhaupadi in 2006. The government also declared Chhaupadi a violation of human rights and criminalized it in 2017. Technically, one can be arrested and/or fined 3,000 rupees for practicing or forcing someone to practice Chhaupadi. One would think that with education, awareness and rule of law, Chhaupadi would be abolished, but it is not the case.
Different parts of the country practice Chhaupadi in different forms. Though the extreme form—such as banning entry of menstruating girls inside the house or secluding them in sheds and huts, does not exist throughout the nation, some version of seclusion is still common everywhere.
During menstruation, a girl is not allowed to go to a temple or to sit at the family’s dinner table. Every month, she eats in her room, alone. It is even worse when she gets her period for the first time: She may be secluded and confined to her room for up to 12 days. Then she has to stay away from certain people, places and objects at least for four days every month. I was no exception.
I too suffered through my first period, which was a miserable 12 days of imprisonment and seclusion. I was confined to my room, where I could not touch anything and was told to remain in my bed. Festival time was my worst nightmare. We look forward to Dashain all year long, but if get your period there is no celebration for you. You simply are banished from your daily life as soon as your vagina bleeds. I often thought of hiding my period to avoid banishment and to enjoy the festival. But it was not possible. Experiencing painful periods and sharing bathrooms with other family members gave it away.
People justified this practice without any logic. “It is just the way the things are,” my mother would say. After suffering through the seclusion for years, as an adult I asked my mother and elders why we were separated. Most did not have an answer and they looked at me like I was stupid for asking such a simple question. Some said “women carry sins, so they have to suffer through menstruation every month.” “What sin? Don’t men also carry the same sin?” I would ask. One wise lady finally gave an answer. “You know the separation has its benefits. It started hundreds of years ago. Women could get a few days of rest from the hard work in the fields.” That has some logic, but today women can do all the chores outside the kitchen. I was not convinced.
Lack of education
One logical explanation for the seclusion of girls with bleeding vaginas is that there is lack of sex education. In Nepal, like in rest of South Asia, sex education has been systematically neglected, especially in public schools. This is a topic of shame and laughter in schools. Neither teachers nor students are comfortable discussing these topics.
I would think, if talking about sex is a taboo, why is the class not separated by sexes. A more open learning environment could be created by separating the class by sexes. The awkwardness could be remedied a sex education could be imparted by a female teacher to girls and a male teacher to boys. But as most schools are co-ed, sex education has been only glossed over, or skipped altogether, and associated with shame, fear and anxiety, failing to serve its purpose. Teachers seek to hurry through the chapters and students try not to blush and sweat as they nervously listen. Why aren’t we investing more to trained teachers to better teach about sexuality?
While girls become biologically fertile once they start menstruating, they do not receive accurate information about what it means to get a period and the things that they need to pay attention to when it comes to their bodies and sexual choices. Girls do not learn about issues of hygiene, products, and diet that are of importance to them. There are places where consumption of certain nutritious food is also forbidden during menstruation, and our education system does little to address these cultural taboos.
Most recently, Chhapadi has been included in grade six curriculum but it does not teach them how to eradicate such practice. It is only in ninth grade that girls learn extensively about the bodily changes during adolescent and what it means. But by that time, it’s too late. Most girls get their periods when they are eleven or twelve (when they are six or seven grades), and our education system waits till they are fourteen or fifteen to teach them about it.
Not only are bleeding vaginas taboo and a topic of shame, but the hygiene products suggesting bleeding vaginas are something to be ashamed of too. If you go to a store to buy sanitary pads, a shopkeeper, regardless of being a man or a woman, carefully wraps it with a piece of newspaper and gives it to you. When you buy cigarettes, that’s not the case. I often thought smoking was a terrible health hazard and a little bit of shaming could not hurt, but it turns out that is not the case. The products suggesting a bleeding vagina on the other hand is a matter of shame and should be purchased with discretion.
Over half of humans bleed every month, but we do not talk about it much. You see more television ads on hair implants and curing baldness, but rarely on periods (besides pads commercials). In my early teens, I suffered terrible cramps during my periods, but I could not dare miss any classes as it was too embarrassing to tell your teacher that you have cramps. Medically known as Dysmenorrhea, statistics suggest that close to 40 percent of women suffer painful periods that include severe cramps, nausea, vomiting, indigestion, and diarrhea. In rare cases, some may even faint. If a man shows these symptoms, it is considered a health problem, and they receive the support they need. They are given medicine and are told to rest. But many women suffer through these symptoms every month, yet do not receive the same kind of consideration.
Discrimination in pain
Period pain is often discounted, and girls do not receive enough medical or emotional support. As I grew up, I decided to tell my teachers or employer why I was missing a class or work. I realized period cramps should not be treated differently from other aches and pains. If I could be excused for a headache, I should be excused for period cramps too. But many girls silently suffer through periods, unable to concentrate in school or work and are also too embarrassed to tell others why they cannot focus. A sexist culture is to be blamed for this.
Sometimes I wonder how things would be different if, like women, men also bled. Their pains would perhaps be more validated in our socio-economic system. In Nepal, not all work places allow monthly sick leave, and very few allow women to take a day off every month if they suffer during their periods. If men bled, this type of sick leave would probably be a norm. Unfortunately, we live in a society where female bodies and their problems do not receive the same level of attention as that of males. This is evident by the investment on Viagra compared to the investment on treating breast cancer, globally.
In her recent article “If men could menstruate” Gloria Steinem discusses how the medical researches, labor laws, as well as the identity of being men would be different if they bled. While her ideas might make some laugh, it carries some level of truth to the fact that we live in societies where male problems are often taken seriously whereas women’s problems are mostly ignored.
For me bleeding vaginas and the secondary human treatment that girls receive because of it is more than just a mere fact. It is about dignity. It is about children’s right to safety, protection and well-being. It is about being a human and saying no to discrimination. It is about receiving care and support from our family members during the most vulnerable days of the month.
How many girls must die before we realize that Chhaupadi in all its forms must stop? Three-month jail time and fine of Rs 3,000 is not enough. Tougher punishments must be enforced. It is crucial that our society, public health, and education system pay attention to bleeding vaginas.
The author is an independent consultant, development practitioner, activist, writer and peace builder