August 13, 2017 12:34 AM NPT
Chhaupadi, the practice of banishing menstruating women to separate sheds, is now a criminal offense. After the passage of a parliamentary bill last Wednesday, anyone found practicing it will now be liable to a fine of Rs 3,000 or three months of jail, or both. The recognition of this inhumane practice as a punishable crime was lone due. Yet there is a lot of skepticism about the effectiveness of the new law. After all, the Supreme Court had outlawed chhaupadi over a decade ago. Yet the ruling seemed to have made no difference to the plight of women, particularly in western Nepal, who continued to be treated as outcasts during their menstrual cycle; some of them even died while holed up in the unsanitary and unsafe sheds. It was a case of the state’s inability to enforce the court ruling. What is the guarantee that the new law will be enforced? Some form of discrimination against menstruating women is widely practiced in the country, even in urban areas. This suggests far too many Nepalis continue to see menstruating women as somehow impure. Perhaps with rising awareness and rapid modernization of our society, upcoming generations will be keener to uproot it.
Yet a big dent can be made even in this generation if the new law is more rigorously enforced. If the state finds it difficult to jail people for practicing chhaupadi, perhaps it could start with a warning to its practitioners the first time. On repeat offense, the offenders can be fined. If they still persist, then there is a strong case for jailing them. In some ways, it is a question of setting a strong precedent. One thing is certain: the task of eradicating discrimination against women based on their regular body functions will be a long and arduous process. Old mindsets don’t change overnight. This is why, in addition to enforcing the new law, there has to be a simultaneous campaign to make people aware of this needless physical and physiological trauma inflicted on our women. In the past decade or so Nepal has been able to considerably reduce the socio-cultural and economic disparities between men and women; and these changes started with a change in legislation. Likewise, the Maoist war had some role in it, as did the overthrow of monarchy, which was in many ways symbolic of the old patriarchal order.
All these factors have contributed to record presence of women in our parliament, courts, local bodies and civil service. Women have in recent times gone on to occupy the highest offices in the land, including that of the President. Laws governing transfer of family property are now more equal, even though far from perfect. And now chhaupadi has been made a criminal offense. So Nepal is on the right track. Now it is up to the media, the civil society, the NGOs and the government bodies working on gender equality to keep the Nepali state under constant pressure to implement its women-related laws and international treaties and conventions it is a signatory to. Criminalization of chhaupadi is something to cheer about. But it is still a long way from being the final triumph against chhaupadi.