This past Friday, 18-year-old woman Tulasi Shahi died in Nepal after not receiving treatment for two venomous snake bites. Tulasi was banished to a menstrual hut outside of her home as a part of the tradition of chhaupadi.
Yes, you read that right. In some remote towns of Nepal, an ancient practice is followed that requires young women to leave their homes during their period, due to the belief that bleeding makes them “impure.”
The practice is known as chhaupadi, which literally means “untouchable being.” During menstruation, women are forced to remain in a hut or cowshed, and are banned from taking part in normal family activities. Tulasi is not the first woman to die from the consequences of this deadly practice. It is common for women to suffocate or freeze to death, and many of these deaths go unreported.
In 2006, the Supreme Court declared chhaupadi illegal, however, there are many villages in Nepal that still abide by its rules. There is proposed legislation that would criminalize the practice and make it an imprisonable offense, but this is currently pending in parliament.
“The government has remained largely indifferent and has not put the issue as a priority,” says Pragya Lamsal, an advocate against the practice in Nepal. “The tradition is not a cultural issue, but a human rights and legal issue, and it undermines a woman’s right to a life with dignity.”
There are many rituals that are followed during chhaupadi. The menstruating woman, no matter her age, is not allowed to go near their house – especially the kitchen – and they are not allowed to use water or traditional healers. They are not allowed to worship or go to temple, and are not allowed to touch adult relatives, especially the men.
Some families build special chambers in their homes for the women, but others are forced to stay in cramped “menstrual huts,” which are built in front of the home. Sometimes as many as five women share one hut, and they are used no matter the weather. Neighbors will sometimes provide the women with food, but from a distance. It is believed that if these rules are broken, there will be many negative consequences for the entire village. Menstruating women are blamed for illness, crop failures, and even the deaths of animals.
Upon the conclusion of their period, the women must go through even more rituals to “cleanse” themselves. They have to thoroughly clean themselves and their clothes, then they must drink cow urine (yes, cow urine), and finally an unmarried virgin must bless the woman and her belongings.
Why do the women not protest this horrible tradition? Why do they not have free will? Why do we celebrate our cycles in America, while the women in Nepal are punished for them?
Pema Lhaki, a menstrual activist, asked herself these same questions. She discovered that the lack of knowledge about menstruation is the main reason why it remains a taboo. None of the women are aware of what is going on inside their bodies. They do not know why or how they have their periods, and they are unaware of the various ways to manage them. The men consider menstruation to be a supernatural threat, due to their own lack of education.
Fear lives in everyone. This fear needs to be lifted, and the only way to do that is to educate these women about their own bodies. Through education, many lives can be spared, and the dignity of all the women of Nepal can be restored.
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