SEATTLE, Washington — Menstruation has usually been an uncomfortable topic that people try to avoid in conversations though the situation is changing day by day. In some western remote communities of Nepal, however, menstruation brings more danger and pain to women than in other parts of the world. Participating in regular family activities, attending schools or just having the option of staying at their own home is out of the question for menstruating women and girls in these communities. At least 72 percent of girls and women in these Nepali communities were ostracized and exiled from their homes during menstruation. This practice is known as “Chhaupadi.” The Nepali government is trying to eradicate menstrual huts in Nepal.
The Danger of Menstrual Huts
Chhaupadi is an ancient custom that is linked to a Hindu taboo. The communities that follow Chhaupadi consider menstruating women to be impure and bringers of bad luck, so they banish them from their family homes. The practice requires the women and girls to live in cattle sheds or makeshift dwellings, often referred to as “menstrual huts”, for the duration of their period. While sleeping in these huts, women are at constant risk of animal bites, smoke inhalation, freezing temperatures, suffocation due to insufficient ventilation and even physical assaults.
There have been several cases of girls dying because of this ancient practice over the years. Early in 2019, a 35-year-old mother and her two children suffocated in a menstrual hut when trying to light a fire to stay warm in the freezing weather. Just 10 months later, another similar death of a 21-year-old woman occurred as she lit the fire in the menstrual hut to keep warm in the icy cold winter night.
Banning the Practice
The practice has been condemned as a violation of human rights and dignity. It exposes women to risks and dangers that could cost them their lives. Both the government and non-governmental agencies have made many efforts to stop the practice and eradicate menstrual huts in Nepal. In fact, the government banned Chhaupadi in 2005 and renewed the law criminalizing the practice in late 2017.
Although the practice was illegal, it is still prevalent in some remote rural parts of Nepal. A study found that nearly 77 percent of girls in a mid-Western region in Nepal continue to sleep in these dangerous “menstrual huts” despite the fact that more than 60 percent of the girls surveyed were aware that it was illegal.
Eradicating Menstrual Huts in Nepal
Attempts to solve the problems by implementing bans or demolishing huts have been found to be ineffective. One well-intentioned campaign engaged in physically destroying traditional menstrual huts. However, knocking down sheds alone only results in the rebuilding of them or women being exiled to live in even more unhygienic and dangerous structures, such as animal sheds.
By 2018, 21 percent of the population in Nepal was still living below the poverty line. As an incentive, the Purbichowki village in Nepal announced that it would give cash rewards of 5,000 Nepali rupees ($44) to women who refuse to follow Chhaupadi. The new reward will benefit 100 women in the village in one of the world’s poorest nations. The local officials also repeat warnings that families found practicing Chhaupadi would be denied state benefits.
This alternative solution hopefully will persuade the people to abandon the practice of Chhaupadi as similar
initiatives that used cash incentives have been successful in the past. In 2005, a similar Nepali government initiative offered cash rewards to women who used medical facilities when giving birth instead of using menstrual huts where many traditional births take place. This cash incentive program did seem to help
decrease the childbirth-related deaths in the nation.
Education and Awareness
Trying to eradicate the use of menstrual huts in Nepal is a complicated matter as it is a long-held tradition
and would involve changing deep-rooted beliefs that have been passed down generation to generation. Although enforcing the law may help, it is more important to raise awareness and educate both men and women about the dangers of the tradition. Education and awareness will gradually remove associations of shame surrounding menstruation and change the beliefs of the locals.
Restless Development Nepal is a program supported by the U.N. Trust Fund and administered by U.N. Women. It is working relentlessly with districts in the far and mid-western regions of the country to eliminate the practice of Chhaupadi. The program is a youth-based organization, working to deliver peer to peer education about personal hygiene as well as sexual and productive rights. After just two years of implementation, the program has trained more than 131 peer educators and educated more than 20,000 women and 15,000 men.
The program seems to be effective too. The prevalence of girls and women sleeping in menstrual huts is now down to 5 percent, a significant cut from almost 20 percent prior to the start of the program. More local leaders and influential figures in the communities are also starting to become aware of the myths surrounding Chhaupadi as well as other forms of discrimination during menstruation. They are showing their support for the eradication of the practice.
Though the change is gradual, there are combined efforts of the government and different initiatives focusing on changing the younger generation’s mentality. These efforts might be the key to eradicating the menstrual huts in Nepal and ending the stigmas that endanger the well-being of Nepali women.
– Minh-Ha La