“Are you on your period?” my grandmother regularly asked during my visits to Nepal as a teenager. 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 if I was hungry, or watch TV with the rest of my family. Divulging the truth meant the four days of isolation that I saw my aunts and cousins endure.
Fortunately, my mother gave me permission to lie. She didn’t want me to suffer like she had as a teenager living in Nepal — cut off from the family, sleeping in the basement, and not being able to go to temple.
This social tradition of monthly isolation is called chaupadi. 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.
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An extreme level of chaupadi is commonly practiced in the western regions of Nepal.
As the community health director at Possible, a health care organization working in far-western Nepal, I am humbled and inspired by the smart, strong women I work with. These young women display tremendous leadership and have overcome economic hardships to access education so they can help ease human suffering in their communities. Yet each month they are punished for nothing more than being women.
The outcome can be tragic.
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. These are not outliers — 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. Yet we must be careful not to justify oppression in the name of respecting culture.
It is also important to link social traditions such as chaupadi to its inevitable consequences — violence against women, which the United Nations defines as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”
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, not even progressive groups in Nepal, are demanding that the laws banning it be followed.
It’s time to weed out chaupadi. Leading Nepali women’s 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; to not lose another sister to chaupadi; to not force another sister to sleep alone in an open hut; to not force another sister to lie.
Isha Nirola is the community health director at Possible, a public partnership with the Nepali Ministry of Health that is building health care services in Nepal’s Achham and Dolakha Districts; and a HEAL Global Health Fellow at the University of California, San Francisco.