Although the practice was criminalized in 2018, the law is rarely imposed and as a result, women are still forced to sleep outside or in ‘special’ huts during their menstruation.
It’s almost 2020, we’ve sent people on the moon, robots on Mars, we’ve spread on the globe far and wide, and yet we still don’t know how to deal with menstruation. Menstruation is still a taboo in many cultures, but some take it much farther than others.
All around the world, girls and women suffer from the stigma of menstruation, but in few places, that is as striking as in Nepal. Much of the country still features an ancient practice called Chhaupadi.
Chhaupadi says that during menstruation, women are impure and tainted, and are therefore banned from participating in family or social activities while menstruating. In order to keep the “impurity” out of the home, special huts called chhau are built, and women have to sleep in them during their menstruation. These menstruating huts are quite common Nepal, which is a big problem.
Staying in makeshift huts in the frigid Nepalese temperatures is simply unsafe. Every year, women die in these huts from exposure, animal bites or smoke inhalation after building a fire to stay warm. In an attempt to stave off these issues, the tradition was criminalized in 2018 — but a new study suggests that the law has had little impact and the practice is still very common.
Nepal is fairly unaccessible, but a few months ago, a team of researchers led by Dr. Melanie Channon at the University of Bath travelled to Karnali Province in mid-Western Nepal. They were helped by a local NGO, CREHPA, and managed to survey 400 adolescent girls aged 14-19 from both rural and urban areas. They also had in-depth discussions with several girls and women up to the age of 40, to get a deeper understanding of what is going on with Chhaupadi.
They found that 60% of the girls surveyed knew the practice was illegal — but most still practiced it: 77% of all the surveyed girls still practiced chhaupadi, and there was no real difference between those who knew it was illegal and those who didn’t. The law had little impact so far.
Chhaupadi is still alive and well, much to the chagrin of both the teenagers and the scientists.
“The women and girls we spoke to were terrified of snakes and animals coming in at night, or of being attacked by strangers,” says Dr Jennifer Thomson, a researcher involved in the study. “Even if they hadn’t experienced that directly, the psychological stress of that was quite real.
“In addition, if they did not have access to a chhau hut, or if it had been damaged or destroyed, we heard anecdotal evidence that women were often forced to sleep outside, open to the elements, or with animals.”
The discrimination and stigma were also still there. Women were often not allowed to interact with male family members during their period, nor were they allowed to attend temples, cook, or enter the house.
Surprisingly, this was often enforced by elder women in the community — the mothers, grandmothers, or just elders in local communities.
The one piece of good news was that girls from urban, wealthier households were less likely to practice the tradition — but it was still a low correlation: 66% of girls in the wealthiest fifth of the population still practiced it, compared to the 77% overall average.
“This is about changing deeply ingrained cultural practices and behaviours, and while changing the law is important, this study shows it’s going to take much more than that. These are practices that have gone on for generations and generations,” says Thomson.
Traditions and mentalities are hard to change, however. So researchers are now working with local communities to help make it easier for women who still have to endure the practice. The first concern is making sure that girls have access to water, soap, and clean toilets — which means that at the very least, menstrual hygiene could is still feasible. Secondly, the objective is to mitigate the mental and physical dangers of girls and women being ostracised from their families, Thomson says.
Lastly, and this won’t happen overnight, the authors recommend reframing the issue in terms of rights — having access to the safety of their homes should be an inalienable, fundamental right for all women.
The study has been published in the journal Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters. Reference
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.