Bringing an end to deadly “menstrual huts” is proving difficult in NepalBMJ 2020; 368 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m536 (Published 14 February 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;368:m536
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As the author correctly points out, the root cause of discrimination of menstruating girls stems from many Hindu mythologies that consider menstruating women to be impure. The author solely focused on Chhaupadi (menstrual exile) which is an extreme form of discrimination in localized areas of Nepal. The bitter reality is that discrimination during menstruation occurs in a spectrum and is prevalent in almost every household of Nepal.
Although women are “allowed” to stay in the house, they are still considered impure. Women are barred from going into the kitchen and “contaminating” the food. They are forbidden to touch male members of the family during this period. In some homes, the wives have to sleep separately from their husbands which means that most of the women are forced to sleep on the floor. A lot of young girls also have to bear the same fate in many households where they are barred from sleeping in their own beds. They are forbidden even to touch plants as it is commonly believed that the plant dies when touched by a woman on her periods. Going to the temples and worshipping isn’t allowed either.
The discriminatory practices mentioned above are not only prevalent in rural areas of Nepal. Educated people living in developed parts of Nepal still hold on to these age-old superstitions. The superstition that has been force-fed to almost every young girl in the name of “culture” is difficult to unlearn. Hence, a lot of these young girls cannot defy these inhumane traditions and pass it on to the next generation when they become mothers. And so the vicious cycle continues insidiously. While this “benign” form of menstrual exile might not seem to have immediate safety and health concerns, these definitely deprive women of their basic human rights where they aren’t allowed to sleep, eat and act on their own will.
While Chhaupadi needs to be abolished as soon as possible, we must also realize that it is only the tip of the iceberg. A serious offense that has been outlawed by the Supreme court of Nepal, it is an extreme form of systemic oppression that denies the dignity of many young girls and women during a natural, biological process. The very deep-rooted nature of this practice is the reason why the change is slow. Hence, a cultural revolution is of utmost necessity for dignified menstruation.
Competing interests: No competing interests
I would like to thank Rojita Adhikari for raising the issue of chhaupadi and why a change in the practice is so needed, yet so difficult to achieve. Knowing that challenging and changing deep-rooted harmful practices is a difficult task, I would like to share my experience of working on this issue over the past five years in a project in Bajhang, a district in the Far-West of Nepal. The project ‘Combating Traditional Practices That are Harmful to Women and Girls’ was implemented by UMN in partnership with two local organisations: Dalit Help Society and Mahila Kalyan Saving and Credit Cooperative, from 2015-2019. At the end of this project we witnessed a number of significant changes in the chhaupadi practice.
The project’s main strategy to initiate change in the harmful practices was group mobilisation for community empowerment. The process involved children, adolescents, women, men, community- and religious leaders, as well as media people. Through the process the groups discussed relevant issues in their community, what they would like to see change and how they could make that wanted change happen. The main objectives were to change attitudes and behaviours related to gender discrimination and harmful practices and support communities to understand, value and practice equality. Through the group mobilisation process social cohesion was strengthened in the local communities and an agency against harmful practices developed, most of all against chhaupadi, other forms of violence against women and girls, and alcohol abuse.
Some of the results related to chhaupadi were measured based on the end-line survey (2019) seen against the results from the baseline survey (2015).
1. In the baseline 46% of women/girls practiced staying in chhausheds during menstruation in Sunikot, one of the village areas the project was implemented in. The end-line survey found that the number had decreased to 14.6 % in this area, a 30% reduction compared to baseline. In Byasi, another village area, 10% of the respondents practiced staying in the chhaushed during baseline, whereas during end-line the number was reduced to 2.9%. In the remaining two village areas, the practice of staying in chhausheds was found to be nil in the end-line, whereas in baseline it was 21% in Lekhgaun and 3% in Sainpasela.
2. In the end-line, most of the women were found being allowed to stay inside the homes during menstruation but with certain restrictions (60.9%) whereas 35% could stay at home without restrictions; meaning they could live as on normal days. In comparison to baseline, the women staying inside with restrictions had reduced by 13%, but the women/girls staying without restrictions had risen significantly from 6% to 35%.
3. During baseline 36% of both male and female considered chhaupadi a right practice. This was reduced to 8.25% for females and 2.35% for males in the end line survey.
4. At the end of the project in total 137 women and girls in the project area have stopped practicing staying in chhausheds during menstruation.
Even if there were many challenges during the process, these changes do show that the communities can break the age-old harmful practice when they are given the opportunity to come together, and tools to discuss and decide about these matters. The involvement of all the different groups of the community was an important approach to bring about change ‘from the inside’.
I hope this can inspire others working on the issue of chhaupadi or other deep-rooted harmful practices. Change is possible.
Competing interests: No competing interests