While women complain, and rightly so, that they spend an average of 10 years of their lives on their periods, sometimes accompanied by physical pain, a majority of the roughly 14 million girls and women in Nepal additionally face numerous restrictions imposed by their families during menstruation. For example, they are not allowed to touch any male family member or eat anything nutritious.
Chhaupadi, a practice prevalent in 21 districts of West Nepal, requires that girls and women live in a cowshed or a separate hut outside the homes for five to seven days. “Chaau” means “impure,” and “padi” means a “shed.” Under this practice, menstruating girls and women have to sleep on the floor or wooden planks without even basic facilities. As a result, some of them contract diseases, some are bitten by snakes, and some are sexually harassed, raped, or murdered.
I spoke to Radha Paudel, a human rights activist for menstrual rights, about the discrimination against Nepali women. Paudel has been striving to protect women’s dignity during menstruation for about four decades by spreading awareness and urging the world community to shift the focus of the movement from hygiene to the dignity of girls and women during their periods.
Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
According to your research, there are 40 types of restrictions imposed on girls and women of West Nepal during menstruation. Could you please tell me more about this?
Menstruation in Nepal has many names. While the word chhaupadi is a local name for menstruation in West Nepal, it is called Chhui, Chhaupratha, and so on in other parts of the country — all having negative connotations. The practice and the restrictions remain similar no matter where a Nepali girl lives.
Till date, I have identified more than 40 types of restrictions in the areas of food, touch, mobility, and participation. For example, [during menstruation] girls and women are not allowed to enter a kitchen, a temple, a school, or go to any social gathering because they are considered impure. They are not allowed to touch their father, brother, husband or any other male member or a pregnant women or children below five years.
Due to misconceptions about religion (Hinduism), it is believed that God will curse a menstruating woman who uses river water or a public tap, or touches a priest, religious books, flowers or cows, which are considered holy in Hinduism. In fact, she cannot eat rice, meat, pickle, citrous fruits, or milk products during menstruation. These practices vary with the caste, region, and religion.
The international media has projected that menstrual restrictions are imposed only in West Nepal. The restrictions are practiced not just in Nepali or Hindu communities, but elsewhere and in other communities, too. In Bangladesh, for example, women are not allowed to eat banana, pineapple, coconut, or pickle during menstruation.
How long has this practice of chhaupadi existed and what are the reasons behind it?
There are no facts available in Nepal, or elsewhere, that identify what’s behind menstrual restrictions or why is menstruation a taboo since the beginning of human civilization. Even Aristotle defined menstrual blood as magic blood. Across human rights and development discourses, menstruation is considered as women’s private issue. Every community across the globe imposes different types of restrictions in the name of impurity, dirt, untouchability, etc. But the Western world has made more progress due to technology and economic growth.
Have you seen any negative or positive trends recently?
I was introduced to menstruation as a state of impurity and a curse of God in 1980. I have observed that people in Nepal resist any discussion on menstruation. Many influential and intellectual people have blamed and threatened me. The world became more open to it after the United Nations Human Rights Council talked about menstruation in the context of the right to water and sanitation in 2014. As a result, the movies “Pad Man” and “Period. End of Sentence” got space in the global film arena. Thereafter, NGOs started working for and donors have started funding programs to spread awareness about menstruation. But it is sad that none of them seriously talks about dignity. These movements do not speak about the impact on environment due to sanitary pads and the right to choice of a girl or woman regarding menstrual products. There are so many menstrual products which reinforce the hygiene but do not guarantee the dignity of girls and women. We cannot go far without breaking menstrual myths. The global community is talking about “Leaving No One Behind” as a slogan of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but how will it be possible without maintaining the dignity of menstruating girls and women? Life gets more miserable if a girl or woman has any disability. Thus, I loudly say that the global community is not ready to address the multifaceted and complex menstrual issue yet. It needs to have a holistic approach.
You have been working to eradicate this problem for so long. Why do you care so much about this issue?
I started speaking about it strongly after I had personally faced restrictions in my own house. Even after working for “dignified menstruation” for about four decades, there are many girls and women who still commit suicide due to such practices. For instance, in 2019, a 14-year-old girl committed suicide in Kenya, where the government has been providing sanitary pads free of cost. In 2017, two girls, 14 and 19, died due to snakebite when they were in cowsheds during their periods. In Nepal, many girls are depressed and try to commit suicide.
As a human being, I deserve a dignity that is equal to men, whether I have periods or not. My mother never opposed the discriminatory practice. My three sisters also accepted what my mother asked them to do, hence they suffered mentally, physically, and socially with a long-term effect. I would never like to see my daughters, granddaughters, or any other girl on the planet go through the same. So I decided to speak up against the practice.
How does this practice affect girls and women of Nepal in their social and professional lives?
When girls get to know about this practice from their mothers, aunts, or any other female members, they consider themselves impure, weak, powerless, dirty, and inferior to their male siblings. They live with fear and feeling of dehumanization. They are taught that it is part of the culture or the religion so they must not question the discrimination. Because of the silence and ignorance at home and school and in their communities, there is a disconnect between what is being taught in school and at home.
Girls and women cannot attend public meetings, go to schools or participate in any sociocultural activity in many parts of Nepal. Thus their intra-community and public interactions are limited.
What are some of your recommendations to the government? Do you think this issue should become part of school curricula?
The first recommendation to the government of Nepal, and government elsewhere, is to consider menstruation-related discrimination as a human rights issue and to change the conversation from hygiene to dignity.
I feel that “dignified menstruation” is the gateway to address many other women-related issues, including uterus prolapse, breast cancer, and HIV/AIDS. I have been urging the global community to celebrate December 8 each year as a day to begin 16 days of activism on menstruation and human existence.
Nepal government must include “dignified menstruation” in school curricula from the 4th to 10th classes.