A Bloody Battle
By Se Eun Pak, Young Writers Contest Nonfiction Finalist
“If I’m menstruating, I will be banished to the small shed that my family built especially for me. I got my period at the age of 14, and since then I’ve been forced to do this,” 32-year-old Dhana Bista tells a Dispatch interviewer. The tradition that Dhana is referring to, called chhaupadi, is when women and girls are cast out from their homes during their monthly periods because they are believed to possess a “polluting touch” that renders anything touched while menstruating impure. It is said that the touch of a menstruating woman can spoil food, make land infertile, wilt plants, and bring other forms of misfortune, so women subjected to this practice are not allowed to reside inside residential homes, come into contact with livestock or crops, or engage in any religious practices during the four to seven-day isolation.
Stemming from cultural and religious ideas about purity, chhaupadi is most prevalent in Hindu communities in rural parts of India and western Nepal among all castes and severely implemented in higher castes such as Brahmin or Chhetri. The huts or sheds for menstruating women, called chhaupadi goth, are often dirty and doorless “mud-walled huts about twice the size of a standard doghouse,” so dilapidated that the roofs provide poor protection from the rain. Some barns serve as chhaupadi goth, as one source mentions that she was “sent to adjoining barns, sleeping along with stinking cows, goats, and buffalos.” Their access to tap water and wells is restricted for fear of their touch polluting the public water supply. One girl recalls, “I bathed in cold river water, was confined in a dark room, and prohibited from seeing the sun.”
Though many girls have been taught that they are following the tenets of Hinduism and are serving their communities by bearing these conditions and obeying the chhaupadi tradition, that does not make it any less frightening. Sequestered in these desolate huts for days, women can be subject to “rape and assaults by drunkards, [the] attack of wild animals (leopard, fox, wolf),” or the bite of a poisonous snake. It is not uncommon for several to die of exposure to extreme temperatures. For example, one girl suffocated from smoke inhalation in the small mud hut during the winter because she built a fire in there, and another died of hypothermia in a chhaupadi goth. In this way, the conditions that women endure during Chhaupadi can be lethal.
As if physical dangers weren’t enough, the gender-based violence perpetuated by chhaupadi is not without its psychological effects. Young girls in the region have confessed that because “menstruation is mentioned like the disease or curse/sin in [my] family,” they dread periods. According to one Nepali girl, “It was already scary to think of the physiological change I was about to experience, but what terrified me the most, was that I was going to be kicked out of home for the first time.” In other words, this practice not only perpetuates discrimination against women, but it also creates and enforces negative feelings about a natural biological process that is necessary for sustaining human life on earth–a process that should be celebrated.
It is almost impossible to believe that such a dangerous practice has survived for hundreds of years, but it was still legal halfway through the first decade of the 2000s. In 2005, the Nepalese Supreme Court finally outlawed Chhaupadi, and in 2017, the Nepalese government made a new law that if anyone forcefully isolates a menstruating girl, they would have to pay a fine or be punished with a three-month prison sentence. In some districts, if families forbid their daughters to go to school or make them isolate themselves into menstruation huts, the family cannot receive government services such as financial allowances or birth registrations. However, because of the ongoing stereotypes and deeply inscribed superstitions, along with societal pressures, some families still follow this practice. In some cases, the girls themselves believe that they must self-isolate and leave home because they are still taught from a young age that menstruation is impure. This is not in violation of any new laws, and therefore, cannot be monitored or stopped. It seems that changing the law is just the beginning; the religious beliefs and societal norms must be adjusted if the living conditions of women in Nepal are to be improved.
As much as I am saddened about the gruesome conditions the menstruating women of Nepal are made to endure and elated at the prospect of women experiencing a higher quality of life now that it has been outlawed, I wonder if outlawing chhaupadi outright is the best thing to do. First, I worry that the law will create situations in which girls are groomed to self-isolate themselves. When discussing life after the chhaupadi ban, a girl named Kunwar who resides in a small mountainous village called Payal, mentions that while her mother was understanding when she stopped practicing chhaupadi, the neighbors were less so: “Soon everybody knew, and they started to blame me for all evils. If someone got sick, it was my fault. If a tiger killed cattle, it was my fault.” After that, she continued to self-isolate despite the law against chhaupadi. Are stories like this an indication that the law will be ineffective, or is religious and social change in Nepal a matter of time or education? There is no clear cut answer, but one thing is certain–negotiating boundaries of tradition, religion, and human rights issues is never simple. I hope that cultural ambassadors and human rights activists in Nepal will continue to fight for nuanced policies that allow both the country’s diverse culture and the wellbeing of its citizens to flourish.
W4P: What did you find most surprising, interesting, or disturbing in your research about your subject?
Se Eun Pak: The most disturbing thing about my subject was the fact that women needed to feel guilty for menstruating, which is out of their control. The fact that women were kicked out of their houses under harsh conditions where they could possibly get injured, raped, or even die, was especially disturbing.
W4P: How did your research change the way you viewed your own culture?
Se Eun Pak: After researching about this, I started to embrace my culture with more gratefulness. Where I live in Korea, chhaupadi is not a practiced tradition. Therefore as a woman myself, I became more thankful about how my culture does not have these stereotypes against women menstruation.
Se Eun Pak is in grade 10 at Yongsan International School of Seoul in South Korea.
The 2020 Young Writing Contest Finalist pieces will be published on our blog during the month of July in recognition of their outstanding qualities. Winning pieces will be published on August 1st in the summer edition of DoveTales, Resistance, Guest Edited by Brad Wetzler.
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