June 4, 2017 02:00 AM NPT
Chhaupadi in Jumla
There has been remarkable progress in empowerment of Nepali women since the 2006 changes. Never before have so many women occupied high political offices, become MPs, reached officer levels of our bureaucracy, or been as involved in the economy, in both formal and informal sectors. In the local level elections that are now being held, half of the around 50,000 elected local level representatives will be women. And yet disturbing news on women’s social and physical persecution continues to regularly come from many parts of Nepal. In the Tarai-Madhes, newly married women are still being tortured, both mentally and physically, with troubling frequency, and many are set on fire, so that the brides die and the grooms can remarry and bring in more dowry. Up in the hilly regions, particularly western Nepal, the practice of chhaupadi continues to be widely practiced. In recent times, the dehumanizing tradition, whereby menstruating women are forced out into cramped and filthy sheds, has received a lot of media attention, which in turn has roused the government and the NGOs working on women’s empowerment into action. In many cases, they are indeed doing what they can in terms of spreading awareness, and yet the steady stream of disturbing news from western Nepal does not stop.
A recent survey conducted by the District Women and Children Office in Jumla found that an astonishing 74 percent of women in the district are still being compelled to live out their menstruation cycle in the sheds. The survey found that around 39 percent of menstruating women in Jumla live in (relatively cleaner) sheds especially designed for menstruating women while 35 percent are forced into (far dirtier) cow sheds. Only 26 percent of women in Jumla can stay in their own homes while they menstruate, yet even these women cannot enter their kitchen during this time. In other words, all menstruating women in Jumla face one or the other kind of humiliation. Of those women confined to outhouses, every year, some die of bitter cold, others contract dangerous infections, and there are dozens of reported cases of rape. All this is happening because of the perverted concept of ‘impurity’ attached to menstruation, a notion largely being fuelled by men who feel entitled to dictate the life of women in what has traditionally been a highly patriarchal society.
In light of the recent survey in Jumla, local government bodies and NGOs have committed to do even more on awareness. But awareness alone has little impact. Things won’t change unless the families that banish their daughters and wives to dangerous (and potentially fatal) living for four or five days every month are punished. So what we really need is strong anti-chhaupadi legislation and its strict enforcement. Traffic police had long urged pedestrians not to dangerously cross the road. The message was simply ignored. But only days after they started fining jaywalkers in Kathmandu, there was a dramatic drop in the number of pedestrians breaking traffic rules. The message could not be clearer: the carrot of awareness will only work when there is also the stick of punishment.