The sad news recently went viral: 16-year-old Anita Chand from Nepal’s Baitadi district died after a snakebite while she was in isolation due to her menstruation. As far as is known, she’s the first fatal chhaupadi victim since 2019. Her family denies that she was on her period when she died. Understandable, as chhaupadi (also known as chaupadi or chauppadi) has been prohibited by law since 2005 and the punishments are harsh. Nevertheless, welfare workers are seeing a resurgence of this ancient practice. What’s going on?
Menstruation: a punishment for all the things you did wrong in previous lives
Chhaupadi is traditionally practised in western and midwestern parts of Nepal. The ancient tradition is linked to Hinduism and is based on the belief that menstruating women are impure and therefore dangerous. If a menstruating woman touches a man, he becomes sick, if she touches a cow it’ll never give milk again, and if she touches a tree it’ll never bear fruit again. Seen from the chhaupadi tradition, menstruation is a punishment for for all the things women did wrong in their previous lives.
Visiting a temple or school, crossing a bridge, addressing or touching men: it’s all forbidden on your period. The consumption of animal products isn’t allowed either, as there’s a fear that these products could be contaminated forever. Women have to stay in separate clay sheds, which can get very crowded. Sometimes there are ten to fifteen women living together in a space of four square metres. There’s no comfort at all. Even a wool blanket against the cold is not done. The only thing allowed is a jute mat or burlap. On average, women stay in these huts between four and eleven days. In the meantime, the work in the field continues. Girls who experience their first menstruation stay there for ten to eleven days. Giving birth brings you eleven days of seclusion.
‘It’s already so dirty here because of the animals’
Chhaupadi has been prohibited by law since 2005. According to official figures from the Nepalese government, by then at least 20 women per year died from snake bites, attacks by wild animals and general debilitation during their isolation. Men seem unfazed by these numbers. Some quotes from advocates of chhapaudi in the Dutch television programme Metropolis: ‘It is already so dirty here because of the animals.’ ‘We can’t let the house be infected.’ ‘It’s only been seven days, sometimes even five.’ And: ‘We didn’t come up with this.’
Already for decades welfare workers, activists and local women’s groups have been trying to relegate the chhaupadi tradition to the history books. They do this by providing information and education and by demolishing menstrual huts. Despite this, the tradition continues. And continues to make headlines. In August 2017, Nepal therefore passed a new law criminalising the tradition further. Anyone forcing a woman to be kept in chaupadi will risk three months of jail and/or a fine of 3,000 rupees (about 33 euros).
2018 and 2019: Multiple reports of deaths
The new law wasn’t enforced very strictly though. Various news sources reported that on January 8, 2018, a young woman died as a result of the chaupadi practice. Gauri Bayak, only 21 years old, was found dead by her neighbours inside a smoke-filled menstrual hut in the district of Achham. In the beginning of 2019 there were again several reports of deaths: in January a woman died, together with her two sons. A few weeks later a young woman died from smoke poisoning.
It was not until December 2019 – fourteen years after the legal ban on chhaupadi – that the first ever arrest followed: a man from Parwati Budha Rawat district was arrested for forcing his sister-in-law to sleep in a hut a hundred meters from the house during her menstruation. She also died of suffocation. She had built a fire in the windowless cabin to keep warm. The temperature in this part of Nepal regularly drops below ten degrees Celsius.
60% Of Nepalese women know that chhaupadi is illegal
Research by the University of Bath and the Center for Research on Environment, Health, and Population Activities (CREHPA) among four hundred Nepalese girls in 2020 showed that 60% of Nepalese women know that chhaupadi is illegal. However, 77% still follow the tradition. The corona crisis hasn’t improved the situation, say experts. The emphasis of information campaigns shifted to the fight against COVID. In areas that were previously declared ‘chhaupadi-free’, thousands of demolished menstrual huts have since then been rebuilt.
The 16-year-old girl who died in August 2023 from a snakebite is the first reported death since 2019. Note the use of the word ‘reported.’ There’s a good chance that many ‘menstrual deaths’ have remained under the radar in recent years.
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Photo: Joshua Watson via Unsplash.