By Shreeya Maskey
Nepal — the land of culture, beauty and superstitious beliefs. Several age-old superstitious beliefs and customs are still actively practiced all over Nepal despite them being harmful and discriminatory. One of these customs is Chhaupadi.
Chhaupadi is mainly practiced in the rural parts of western Nepal as the locals believe women menstruating and in their postnatal state are untouchable and impure. In the name of Chhuapadi, menstruating women are barred from touching their family members, religious icons, water and food, and are forced to sleep in a makeshift hut or a livestock shed locally known as “chhau goth”.
These chhau goths are typically unhygienic, increasing health risks for menstruating women and making them vulnerable to diarrhea, dehydration, hypothermia as well as Urinary Tract Infections. Women and girls are also subjected to the dangers of snake bite, sexual violence and suffocation in their sleep, which more often than not lead to their untimely death.
Despite this deadly custom being declared as a social ill practice by the Supreme Court in 2005 and criminalized in 2017 with the newly enacted Criminal Code, the locals in the mid-western and far-western regions have continued unabated with the custom. Regardless of the three-month jail sentence or Rs 3,000 fine or both for anyone forcing a woman to follow the custom, Chhaupadi fails to be seen as a criminal offence by practicing family members.
The data with Nepal Police show that there have been only 12 Chhaupadi-related arrests between 2015 and 2020 in Dailekh, Bajura, Doti, Achham and Surkhet districts. Even after the implementation of the anti-Chhaupadi law, a negligible number of people have been proactively reporting the practice to their local police, and more than half of those reports are done only after a woman dies in her sleep due to snake bite or fire or suffocation.
While women continue to practice Chhaupadi in their households, it is commonly imposed by the houses’ patriarchs. “Are women willing to go against their own (male) family members to report the practice of Chhaupadi to the police?” asks Dr Brinjwala Shrestha, Faculty of Institute of Medicine at Tribhuvan University.
“When I went to Doti in 2014 for my student’s research project on Chhaupadi, the older women there were completely opposed to the idea of removing chhau goths and stopping the practice in fear of Gods’ wrath and curses,” says Dr Shrestha.
This custom that arises from the superstition that the Gods might get angry if menstruating women are not secluded forces first-time menstruating individuals to remain in the chhau goth for at least 14 days. Any support by the family while going through a significant physiological change would be desired by these individuals, but Chhaupadi does not allow that.
Forcing menstruating women and girls to live in animal sheds like mere cattle robs them off their dignity.
Four years into criminalization, we must realize that the age-old custom cannot be eradicated merely through legal means. Awareness among practicing families of the fact that menstruation is a perfectly normal process and not a sign of bad omen is crucial.
Local priests are the ones with more authority when it comes to imposing superstitions like Chhaupadi since districts such as Achham, Bajura and Doti are amongst the poorest in Nepal with their literacy rate trailing at less than the national average (67.9%).
“Shamans, known as Dhami/Jhakri, and local priests as well as pundits play a pivotal role in encouraging the stigma surrounding menstruation,” says Dr Shrestha adding, “Their first hypothesis for the cause of any sickness is that the sick person might have recently touched a menstruating woman.”
“If they are the ones targeted during awareness campaigns, people with deep rooted belief are more inclined to listen to them.”
Chhaupadi not only means women being banished from their homes to a shed in the west, says Dr Brinjwala Shrestha. “Excluding menstruating individuals during religious celebrations as well as daily household activities also result in abandonment and discrimination, which is persistent in urban areas as well.”
“It is our duty to make ourselves and the people around us aware in any way we can regardless of our geographical, religious or economic status,” Dr Shrestha concludes.