Nepal: Why Menstrual Huts Still Exist Despite Being Illegal
In 2005, Nepal's Supreme Court banned chhaupadi, describing it as a human rights violation
Ramita Rawal (name changed) hasn't had warm and nutritious food in four days. The 12-year-old has been forced to leave the comfort of her home and made to sleep in a hut nearby, as she's going through her menstruation.
This is an experience shared every month by many girls and women across Nepal, where those going through their periods are considered "impure."
During the days of menstruation, their families banish them from their homes to tiny, ramshackle huts or sheds — called "chhau goths" — with poor ventilation and sanitation.
The menstruating girls and women are also forbidden to take part in normal family activities as well as to touch other people and household items.
In many cases, they are also barred from entering temples or attending religious functions.
Among other things, the practice has a detrimental effect on female education, as girls in some places are not allowed to go to school when they have their periods. A 2020 report revealed that one out of four girls in the country missed school during menstruation.
The centuries-old Hindu social custom – deeply entrenched in Nepali society, where it is known as "chhaupadi" — is particularly prevalent in parts of western Nepal.
The huts for menstruating women are generally unsafe and expose them to life-threatening situations
Tough to eradicate
The huts for menstruating women, usually made of mud and straw, are generally unsafe and expose the women to health hazards and life-threatening situations, including extreme temperatures, snake bites, suffocation due to poor ventilation and sexual abuse.
Exact numbers are difficult to determine, but in the past 13 years, at least 15 deaths have been recorded of women who were sleeping in the huts.
The custom also fuels gender inequality, stigma and discrimination.
In 2005, Nepal's Supreme Court banned chhaupadi, describing it as a human rights violation. And since 2008, authorities have been running public awareness campaigns.
Then, in 2017, the nation's parliament criminalized the practice, stipulating a three-month jail sentence or a 3,000 rupee fine ($22.76, €23.21), or both, for anyone forcing a woman to follow the custom.
These measures, however, have failed to put an end to the practice, which has continued to flourish in parts of the country because of the ingrained superstitions and taboos concerning menstruation.
Activists believe that the law alone doesn't suffice to rid the country of chhaupadi.
"We have not been able to wipe out chhau goths in the areas where religion is deeply rooted. We believe that spreading awareness on menstrual health will take effect and slowly bring good changes," said Nanda Thapa, vice chairperson of Badimalika municipality.
She pointed out that in some places women themselves have been trying to stop the police from demolishing these sheds due to the deep-rooted fear that something bad will happen if they don't adhere to the custom.
Education key to change mindsets
To stop the practice, Thapa stressed that it's necessary to change people's behavior and mindsets by educating them about menstruation and the misconceptions surrounding it.
And experts say this education must start at school, as it's critical to teach kids that menstruation is natural and debunk the myths.
Adolescent girls who attend schools and learn about menstrual hygiene management (MHM) are attempting to normalize menstruation and eliminate the stigma. Some are also having open discussions on the subject and asserting their needs.
Radhika Thapa (name changed) recalls the day she rebelled against her mother. "I had a severe period cramp, and I begged my mother to let me sleep in my room. But she refused and wanted me to go to the chhau goth. Then I started protesting and told her that I would leave the house then and there. From that day on, I haven't had to sleep outside," the 18-year-old told DW.
Sapna Paudel, a women's rights activist, said that it's important to engage with religious leaders and traditional healers to change people's attitudes. "They hold the power to influence their communities," she stressed.
Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru
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