Nepal’s superwomen beat superstition

DEFYING TRADITION: This cow shed in Kailali used for menstural banishment. It has now been turned into a store room for rice husk.

Media reports of the practice of chhaupadi are full of harrowing tales of suffering, and women dying of cold or suffocation during their monthly exile to the cowshed.

A recent trip across eight districts in Nepal’s Far West revealed a critical mass of women who are defying the practice and overcoming the superstitions that perpetuate it. Each of the women have a different reason for shunning the shed, but together they are breaking an entrenched taboo that has come to epitomise gender discrimination in Nepal.

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In Achham, a 23-year old girl bravely decided to stay at home, even though her mother goes to the shed. On occasions when they menstruate together, the daughter cooks food inside and takes it out for her mother. She says indignantly, “The municipality says there must be a toilet at home, but no one ever discusses that women must not be forced to live in cowsheds.”

Nirmala BK, 30, is also from Achham and is an example of how a mother’s courage can help eliminate practices like chhaupadi. Since she was not allowed to cook during her periods, Nirmala’s children would walk through town carrying flour, and beg people to cook roti for them. After seeing how miserable they were, the mother resolved to stay home and cook during menstruation.

Some women have supportive husbands who empowered them to break the taboo. In Bajhang one woman said her husband pressured her mother-in-law to be allowed to stay indoor during her periods. “My mother-in-law still tries to find out whether I am menstruating or not, but I just tell her a white lie that I took a medicine to stop the bleeding,” she added.

Ramaroshni Giri stays at home during menstruation for safety reasons, but has gone one step further to break the taboo about milking livestock during her periods. “If I don’t do it, the cows will not give milk, and besides, none of the cows have died,” Giri says.

A teenage girl in Achham kept her monthly cycle a secret because her mother threatened to kick her out of the house if she stayed indoors.

One day, coming home from school the girl was shocked to see that her younger siblings had gone hungry all day because their mother was in the shed. She flew into a rage against her mother: “Does our religion say the children have to go hungry?” After that outburst, the mother now stays home and cooks even during her periods.

There is superstition that the shaman will shiver if a menstruating woman touches him. So, 35-year-old Gangadevi Bista from Doti decided to test that. Feigning an illness, Bista showed her hand to a dhami during her periods, but not a shiver from him. She made sure the whole village found out about it.

A restaurant owner in Achham has abandoned chhaupadi , saying her business would collapse if she banished herself to a shed every month. “The elders, dhami and jhankri have all eaten the food I cooked even during my periods, none of them fell sick,” she says.

A Dalit woman almost lost her baby son while she was in the shed in winter. She fell asleep with her eight-month-old in the shed and they were both nearly killed by a fire. She has not gone back to the shed after that.

Many equate chhaupadi with poverty, but it is a product of a deep-seated patriarchy. In spite of positive changes, the practice continues and the pain of many women proves that raising awareness alone is not enough. Chhaupadi has already been criminalised by law, and needs to be strictly enforced.

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Vending machine for pads

Students at the Gyanodaya High School in Kathmandu do not have to worry about getting their periods while in class, forgetting to bring sanitary pads, or even skipping school for a few days every month. The school has installed a vending machine for its 1,300 female students and 75 female staff which will provide a napkin after dropping a Rs 1 coin, but the users have to pay Rs 5 to the school for the added cost.

The students in Grade 6 or 7 who get their periods for the first time, often while in school, are the ones who are going to benefit the most from the vending machine, the first sanitary pad vending machine in Nepal, and Gyanodaya has established itself as a menstruation-friendly school.

The school, whose students achieve one of the highest pass rates in SEE exams in the country, expects the girl students to do much better in class now that they don't have to worry about their periods so much.

"We used to face hassles when we would forget to bring pads, and it was troublesome to borrow from classmates, we used to have to leave school and go home," now we don't have to worry about it anymore," says Ganga Sapkota, a student.

Principal Natikaji Maharjan, who also teaches science at the schoool, says the curriculum places a priority on studying reproductive health so as to remove the taboos and superstition surrounding menstruation.

He says this is a pilot project, and the school hopes to set aside a budget for free distribution of the pads from next year. “It will help in spreading awareness about mestruation as being a natural biological process,” he says.

From the Nepali Press

Shanti Tamang in, 14 Feburary

Full story in Nepali here.