When Sangam Shrestha first got her period seven years ago, at the age of 10, she was kept in a dark room for seven days.
“I was not allowed to look at the sun, touch any male family member nor even hear their voice,” said Shrestha, who lives in Nakhipot, Lalitpur, a municipality near Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. “I could not even go to the bathroom and had to make a pot my latrine for seven days.”
She missed a week of school, she said, and had to hide the reason she was absent.
As per her family rules, the girl’s confinement to a dark room for seven days only applied to her first two menstrual cycles. These days, at 17, the restrictions are fewer but Shrestha still feels punished during her period. “I am not allowed to enter the kitchen or touch any material from it,” she said. Nor is she allowed to touch any holy objects.
In rural villages, mainly in the Hindu communities in the western part of Nepal, many women and girls spend their periods in an animal shed or a separate shed built outside their homes. This isolation practice is known as chhaupadi. Outlawed in 2005, its persistence among some families is attracting growing press attention and an intensifying public health spotlight.
Girls and women can die of exposure to the elements and to such risks as a snakebite, finds a 2010 field bulletin published by the United Nations. That report detailed the death of an 11-year-old girl who suffered a bout with diarrhea and dehydration that began while she was confined in such a shed. Her family and neighbors refused to take her to hospital, believing they would become impure if they touched the menstruating girl. While no statistics are available about such deaths they are believed to be occurring in parts of western Nepal.
Missing Days of School
Kathmandu valley resident Dikshya Karki, 17, missed school for two weeks when she first began menstruation. Though she was able to catch up on her studies, she said chhaupadi causes her ongoing hardships.
“I have to go to school early in the morning when no one is awake at my house. So, I don’t get to have anything [to eat] as I am not allowed to enter the kitchen or touch anything,” Karki said. “It troubles me a lot during my menstruation because I am physically weak. I am not able to lift heavy bags or heavy objects, [or do] household work like mopping and doing laundry.” But she still must wash and purify her own clothes, bed sheet and blanket cover.
Despite the national law passed against chhaupadi 10 years ago, Karki is one of many girls–both in rural and urban Nepal–who doesn’t feel she can question the practice. “If you object to it, you are scolded for not believing in God,” said Karki.
“This tradition is followed from a very long time and yes, I believe it to some extent,” said Jemie Shrestha, 17. “I do believe that if you touch…anything holy, God will punish you.”
Both Karki and Shrestha said they would want their own daughters to follow at least some of the rules. “I would not let my children touch holy things but I find the tradition of not being able to touch men irrational,” Shrestha said.
But some girls try, at their own peril, to defy custom. In 2011, a group of female teens were forced to walk on thorns after they started an anti-chhaupadi campaign in Banlek and Durgamandau villages of Doti district, according to The Himalayan Times.
‘Unclean’ During Cycles
The practice is rooted in a belief shared by numerous cultures that women and girls are unclean during their cycles.
“They are impure during that time and those who touch them have to purify themselves by sprinkling water or ‘gold water,'” said Raju K.C., a sociology professor at Tribhuvan University, during an interview after a class in Jawalakhel, Lalitpur. (In Nepal, some people regard gold as purifying and will use water that has come in contact with it for ritual cleansing.)
The practice, usually found in illiterate and poor communities, is centuries old and honors the myth that if menstruating women are not restricted in their activities they will anger the Hindu goddesses. For example, there’s a belief that if a menstruating girl touches any books, Goddess Saraswati, the goddess of education, will be angry.
The isolation principle of chhaupadi can also be applied to childbirth.
After childbirth some women must stay in a cow shed for 11 days, finds a Feb. 20 report by Amnesty International. Despite such isolation, the physical pressures placed on women too soon after childbirth also pose a severe health risk in the form of uterine prolapse, a problem so widespread that it is a focus of concern for women’s rights activists in the region.
The medical implications of chhaupadi include the requirement that menstruating girls not share family latrines. Since most homes have only one facility, located outside, girls must use fields as toilets, which can be unsanitary.
“The number of health-related problems such as itching, excessive bleeding and vaginal infections is rising because of village girls and women are not having knowledge of proper sanitary practices, which cause more health problems,” OmPrasad Gautam, a public health expert with Water Aid UK, said in an email interview.
This story is part of Teen Voices at Women’s eNews. In 2013 Women’s eNews retained the 25-year-old magazine Teen Voices to continue and further its mission to improve the world for female teens through media. Teen Voices at Women’s eNews provides online stories and commentary about issues directly affecting female teens around the world, serving as an outlet for young women to share their experiences and views.