Eliminating Chhaupadi in Nepal: A Harmful Practice Rooted in Tradition
In the most rural and remote regions of Nepal, known as the Karnali region, menstruating women are considered impure. Traditions and, in part, religion, force women to leave their homes to live in mud huts (or worse) during their period. The practice is known as Chhaupadi.
Many death, diseases and cases of emotional and physical suffering go undocumented. Yet in this darkness, there is light. Several villages are starting to declare themselves as “Chhaupadi free”.
This story isn’t only about this practice, it’s about different communities on the road to eliminating Chhaupadi. It’s about the realities that the women shared with me – why some villages are struggling to let go of this tradition, and why some are rejoicing with a new future.
The government, under much international pressure, has made Chhaupadi a criminal offence for those who push women out of their homes while menstruating. Both fees and jail time could be imposed on the offender(s). Yet after travelling to various villages of Karnali, it was clear that law enforcement doesn’t reach this isolated and inaccessible place – much like other services such as health and education.
We Must Do This Or Else…
I visited three villages, each with different relationships to the practice of Chhaupadi. It was interesting to see how each village expressed their opinions about the practice.
One of the three villages was not yet ready to eliminate the Chhaupadi practice. When I asked them why they practice Chhaupadi, they told me, “we must do this or else we will be punished with misfortune”. The women felt that not practising would upset their god, they felt like this is something that had to be done – even at the expense of their personal suffering.
After speaking to these women I felt a tension. They still expressed that during the days they practised Chhaupadi, they felt lonely and isolated. There wasn’t an absence of personal and physical pain, yet despite this, they didn’t feel ready to let go of this tradition, rooted in the idea that women could risk being cursed.
While several women spoke openly about not being ready to eliminate Chhaupadi, what was most interesting to see was that our talk about menstruation and this practice was gathering a lot of attention. Many other females, males, and children came together to hear what was being said. While some silently nodded at the vocal voices, other found the courage to speak out themselves.
As I said before, when the women are menstruating, they are forced out of their home usually to mud shed either adjacent or far from the home. After the discussion, some of the women showed us their shed.
As we walked closer to the house and shed, I realised that we were only inches away from the space where the cows lived. I couldn’t believe my eyes at the site, a mix of fear and horror engulfed me as I pictured the women cold and alone in this shed.
I walked out of the village with a heavy heart knowing that women put themselves in this situation and that members of their own family encourage them to leave their homes for a shed.
But the story doesn’t end here…
One Foot In, One Foot Out
While it was heavy to visit a village that still holds onto the Chhaupadi practice. Another village we visited felt pulled in different directions. The women were honest and open to discussing how Chhaupadi was a painful experience, one woman recalls:
“…I got a skin disease through this and I had to spend money to go to the hospital. My small baby suffered too. They had to go to the shed with me… the baby will come with me, I cannot leave my baby until at least 3 months after birth.”
Other women stepped up to talk about their experiences. They were in the progress of realising that there is a possibility to eliminate Chhaupadi. There was a sense of hope that this could be put past them.
One woman describes this tension between keeping and letting go of Chhaupadi when she says, “I was not given food or allowed to take a bath with the public water. I had to walk far to the river. My clothes were dusty and I had to sleep in the shed with this dust. I don’t think Chhaupadi is good for our health.”
This is where the efforts of Action Works Nepal and support of European Union became clear: awareness of the demerits of Chhaupadi in the community and empowering women and girls to fight against the practice it is critical.
Celebrate in Song and Dance
One village was Chhaupadi free, meaning that they abandoned the practice. The women rejoiced with dance and music – even creating a song about eliminating the practice of Chhaupadi. The women wore matching red and sat in a circle – I felt their unified strength.
They recalled their stories of when they practised Chhaupadi and they recounted their past in revulsion. They spoke honestly about the emotional trauma they went through – depressions, anxiety, shame, stigma.
Looking into the present and future one woman of the group told us, “We engage in the group and discuss different malpractice. Everyone is involved, even the young girls and men.”
What I learned is that even this village, celebrating and rejoicing a new life without the Chhaupadi practice, was once in the same “place” as the first village – they too were holding onto a long-standing ancient Hindu tradition.
There is a clear struggle between past and present – to keep hold of a long tradition or to progress towards a new future. Yet with the efforts to bring to light information about health, hygiene, and women’s rights change could be felt and seen.