On August 9th, Nepal passed a bill aimed to protect and empower women. The bill includes stronger laws against acid attacks, a law that bans dowries, and a law that punishes those who still practice chhaupadi.
Chhaupadi means “untouchable being,” and it is an ancient Hindu custom that shames women and girls for menstruating. Chhaupadi forces women and girls to leave their homes until the end of their period. The practice has been banned in Nepal since 2005, but the lack of penalties for lawbreakers fostered the continued practice of chhaupadi in many regions.
“Chhaupadi didn’t end because there was no law to punish people even after the Supreme Court outlawed the practice,” said Krishna Bhakta Pokhrel, who is a lawmaker involved in the creation of the new bill. “People will be discouraged to follow this discriminatory custom due to fear of punishment.”
Now, anyone who violates the law banning chhaupadi will face a punishment of up to three months in jail, or a fine of 3,000 rupees, which is around $30 USD.
The rules of chhaupadi are very strict and extremely degrading. Women are not allowed to enter their homes in most cases, and are forced to reside in an outdoor shed called a goth. These goths will end up housing multiple people, though they are not designed to fit more than one person. They are not insulated and offer little protection from the outside world. It is because of these living conditions that many women suffer or die inside goths.
During chhaupadi, women are also banned from worshiping or going to temple, using traditional healers, touching water, and touching relatives, especially men. People believe that the failure to follow chhaupadi results in a curse on the entire village.
“We grew up hearing that God becomes angry if menstruating women enter in the kitchen or touch male members of the house. We fear what we are told for generations comes true and all bad will happen if we break the rules,” said 50-year-old Nepali woman Tulasi Majhi.
The custom is so deeply rooted into the lives of these people that a family’s discontinuation of chhaupadi could mean isolation from the rest of the village. Many people are in favor of the new laws, but there are some who do not think that the laws will be effective.
“Fear of punishment will not stop people from following this custom,” said Gauari Kumari Oli. “The government and non-governmental agencies should start to do more to raise awareness.”
This is exactly what women’s rights and menstrual activist Pema Lhaki believes. In 2015, Lhaki conducted research in Nepal on chhaupadi, and she discovered that most of the women whom she interviewed were unaware of how and why women menstruate. The lack of knowledge about the female body is one of the main reasons why menstruation remains taboo in Nepal.
If men and women were properly educated on menstruation, the fear and shame that women and girls feel when getting their periods would be lifted. Until educational change happens, hopefully the new laws will discourage chhaupadi and encourage the people of Nepal to embrace womanhood.
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