Another dark, cold, and lonely night for 14-year old Maya*…
She is scared but she is slowly getting used to this. She has to spend her nights in a dingy cowshed. In a few days, as she stops menstruating, it will be all over.
And next month, she has to go through this again as her period starts.
She understands her fate — as a menstruating woman, she is impure. As part of the social norm, she has to spend her menstruating days and nights isolated from the community in a separate hut, like a cowshed.
Maya is one of the many women in the villages of far-west Nepal where the belief that menstruating women are impure has materialized into an oppressive norm.
They are forced to live in a separately constructed tiny hut, with walls made of mud/rocks that are located outside the house. Often, they live in cowsheds if a separate hut is unavailable.
This practice, also known as “Chhaupadi” (Chhau = untouchable, Padi = being, in a local dialect) has been going on for generations. Despite this practice being outlawed by the government since 2005, much needs to be understood and done towards eradicating it.
Such oppressive culture concerning menstruation is prevalent not only in predominant Hindu societies like those in western Nepal, but also in Islam and Judaism where such taboos are rooted in religion, culture, and tradition. These roots are then manifest in forms of different practices.
In far western Nepal, the extreme practice of Chhaupadi has led to many cases of abuse (rape) and deaths (suffocation, snake bites). Some recent examples include Gauri Kumari Bayak who died of smoke inhalation and Tulasi Shahi who died from snakebite.
According to the 2010 State Department Human Rights Report, 50 percent of women in western regions of Nepal practice Chhaupadi.
Although this practice has been outlawed and criminalized, social norms have proven to be more powerful, as women still suffer.
My father was born and raised in the same village where Maya lives. I visited this place with my partner(she is from Thailand) two years back, and since then we have been visiting the village every year.
Developing living standards in the villages of far-west Nepal has been a major focus for me. While it has not been easy, I have come to the understanding that women being able to practice their rights by being fully involved in decision-making is at the core of any community’s progress.
For any community to progress, women have to play a leadership role.
This has been the finding of many studies, all over the world, time and time again. The data is crystal clear. And it is important to understand that menstrual health is central to women’s well being.
So how does improving menstrual health get rid of the oppressive social norm that discriminates against menstruating women?
Women in the village have said that when they are able to use comfortable, quality sanitary products during menstruation they feel good and healthy. It boosts their self-respect and confidence.
Being able to move with comfort is crucial, especially when you are already mentally handicapped by the “impure” belief.
While changing the entire oppressive social norm will take time and persistence, we have started something small, practical, and effective. We started a non-profit, Metta Valley, with its first project geared to put an end to “period poverty” in the village.
What is Period Poverty?
Period poverty is defined as being unable to access sanitary products and having poor knowledge of menstruation often due to financial and social constraints.
We believe, there can be an end to this.
Villages in far-western Nepal have little or no access to menstrual products.
Due to a lack of access to healthy sanitary products, women use unclean fabrics during menstruation. This makes them unable to live normally, hence exacerbating the prejudice that already exists.
Due to the period poverty and the stigma around it, women suffer during menstruation physically, emotionally, and socially.
Women and girls are disempowered when they live in communities with social norms that stigmatize women for their very nature that makes them women (menstruation). They should not have to be embarrassed about something that is natural and biological.
After all, the human race would not be “birthed” without the women’s reproductive system.
In a recent survey done by our non-profit in 4 communities in far-western Nepal, girls between 13–19 years of age have reported they get sick and feel mistreated by their own families that due to period poverty and stigma.
For instance, they are expected to eat only after everybody else in the family has eaten, often leaving them with very little food to eat. Also, they aren’t given normal nutritious food like yogurt during menstruation.
Stigmatize a girl once she reaches puberty, and you shatter her entire womanhood!
The stigma needs to be fought, shattered, and won. If governments and agencies can provide free condoms, they should be able to provide hygienic products for menstruation as well. Menstrual justice is a right.
The PADS Project — A Small Step…
Our current project is focused on women’s menstrual health in the village. There are 173 women residents and they do not have access to menstrual pads.
We recently provided 150 reusable, eco-friendly menstrual pads to 50 women in the village to see if this would significantly impact their lives.
If this brings about the change we are seeking, then our goal is to provide at least 5 pads to all of the 173 women in the village by March 2021.
Then we will work to make this model sustainable — through awareness, behavior changes, and support network.
…and the Future?
My village is quite exotic in that people live with supernatural beliefs, oppressive norms, but there is also a lot of love.
Yes, it will take time and persistence to dismantle the “menstruating women are impure” belief but it will quickly go away once women feel their own power, I believe.
When this power is realized and comes to fruition, the progress will be easy and meaningful.
And Maya and all the other women will not only have to not worry about sleeping in cowsheds but also fully enjoy their womanhood.
And the entire community will grow like never before.
Upen Singh writes about people and progress. He is interested in making lives better.
Having traveled to over 25 countries he is always seeking new adventures to learn from and share. He has an M.A. in Developmental Economics from West Virginia University.
He lives in Thailand, Nepal, and the United States, constantly traveling. He is currently involved in a rural development project in far-west Nepal.