Chaupadi is a social tradition related to "menstrual taboo" in the western part of Nepal, for Hindu women. The tradition prohibits them from participating in normal family activities during menstruation period, as they are considered "impure".
Menstruating women are thought to offend the Hindu gods and bring down a curse on their households if they remain indoors. In addition to being prohibited from taking part in normal family activities, women who are menstruating are forced to live outside of the home in cow sheds or makeshift huts, regardless of the weather.
During this time, women are forbidden to touch men or even to enter the courtyard of their own homes. They are barred from consuming milk, yogurt, butter, meat, and other nutritious foods, for fear they will forever mar those goods. Women must survive on a diet of dry foods, salt, and rice.
This period of time lasts between ten to eleven days, when an adolescent girl has her first period; thereafter, the duration is between four and seven days each month. Childbirth also results in a ten to eleven days of confinement.
They cannot use warm blankets and are allowed only a small rug; most commonly made of jute (also known as burlap). They are also restricted from going to school or performing their daily functions like taking a shower.
Age old superstition tied to local culture
This system comes from the superstition of impurity during the menstruation period. The legend is that if a menstruating woman touches a tree, it will never bear fruit again; if she consumes milk, the cow will not give any more milk; if she reads a book, Saraswati, the goddess of education will become angry; if she touches a man, he will fall ill.
Illegality of the practice
Chaupadi was outlawed by the Supreme Court of Nepal in 2005, but the tradition has been slow to change. In 2017, Nepal passed a law, punishing people who force women into exile during menstruating with up to three months in jail and a fine of 3,000 Nepalese rupees.
"Are you on your period?" my grandmother asked regularly during my visits to Nepal as a teenager", says Jamuna, a student from Nepal. "She wanted to know because I would be "unclean" if I was menstruating. I felt a mix of guilt and rebellion every time I lied. And I would always lie so I could sleep in my own bed, go into the kitchen when I was hungry, or watch TV with the rest of my family. Divulging the truth meant four days of isolation", Jamuna adds.
Fortunately, for Jamuna, her mother allowed her to lie. She didn't want her daughter to suffer like she did as a teenager living in Nepal — cut off from family, sleeping in the basement, and not being able to go to temple.
Dangerous practice causing recurring deaths
Women have died while adhering to this practice. Two young women in late 2016 died from smoke inhalation and "carbon monoxide poisoning" from lighting fires in the secluded, makeshift, poorly ventilated huts. Rape, snakebites and wild animal attacks are other common causes of death of these banished women.
On December 17, 2016, a 15-year-old girl in the Achham District in western Nepal died from suffocation in the shed where she was forced to sleep in because she was menstruating. Hers was the second chaupadi-related death that month in the district. Chaupadi-related deaths occur routinely in far-western Nepal.
Although Nepal's Supreme Court banned chaupadi in 2005, the practice still continues, underscoring how normalized this custom is throughout the region. Breaking down social constructs that contribute to practices such as chaupadi can be difficult. Though chaupadi is against the law, local authorities do not prosecute families that continue to enforce the practice or even urge them to stop. Few individuals or organizations, are demanding that the laws banning it be followed.
It's time to weed out chaupadi. Leading Nepali women rights' lawyer and law professor, Shashi Adhikari Raut, who has worked to fight the practice, outlines a novel action if authorities don't enforce the law: file a public interest litigation case.
Public interest litigation essentially empowers any Nepali citizen or group to file a case on behalf of a disadvantaged individual or group who might not have the education or resources to do so themselves. Chaupadi falls in this category. Few Nepali citizens know this legal strategy exists. That's one of many reasons why we need more rights-based education in rural communities on the laws that exist to protect women and how to access these legal protections.
The recent chaupadi-related deaths are a wake-up call for all Nepalis — and the citizens of the world — to stand up and speak out for the rights of girls and women. As a beginning, the individuals responsible for these deaths must be held accountable for them. At the same time, we must find ways to ensure that legal sanctions against this practice are enforced.
Making chaupadi a practice of the past will help build a better Nepal for its daughters, sisters, mothers and wives. We must speak out against this practice in all forms: to not tolerate this violence anymore. We must be careful not to justify oppression in the name of respecting culture.