Social taboo: Menstruation is perceived as shame and uncomfort, not pride and joy

Published on Jul 15 2018 // bignews

Amiansu Khanal is a third year student at Connecticut College studying Economics and Political Science. She will be spending the next semester at Oxford University researching British colonial history. She is primarily interested in the legal field and how social movements ignite legal and social justice. Given this, she applied for a national award titled ‘Davis Projects for Peace’ that funds the grassroots movements worldwide. During her recent trip to Nepal, she focused her movement around women’s rights violation issues ongoing in Nepal, particularly Chaupadi. Through this, she created ShEmpowered-a movement that is trying to help end menstrual ‘exile’ prevalent in rural Nepal, celebrate womanhood, and provide menstrual products to those in need. She spent the past month travelling to villages in Palpa, and Jumla educating women and young girls on their legal rights regarding Chaupadi. Excerpts of her conservation;

Why do you think social development and empowerment of women is limited in Nepal?

An overstated answer to this question would be to say that because Nepal is a patriarchal society, empowerment of women is lacking here. However, the root cause is much deeper, I believe that it is the women themselves that unknowingly, and knowingly limit the empowerment of themselves and others around them. This is because Nepal is a society where freedom and personal choice is limited to both women and men. It is a society that is governed by the opinions of others. Most issues in our families begin and end with, “what will people say.” Given this societal context, the women here internalize societal misogyny and inhibit their own growth, restrict their daughter’s freedoms, all in the name of “what will people say?” From Jumla to Palpa, my conversations with women began and ended with, “how we can quit this tradition of menstrual ‘exile’, what will people say if we quit? No one will come to our homes, I would rather force my daughters to continue this practice than be removed from society.” This thought process in itself is inhibiting the empowerment of women in Nepal

What does Chaupadi mean to you?

Chaupadi, in my observation, is simply a form of social exile. In this country, menstruation is a source of sin and shame, rather than pride. Hence, an act so shameful, and sinful ought to be practiced in exile, in solitude. In the current context, it is nothing but a gross violation of human rights and women rights. This too, not by international standards but by national legal standards as Chaupadi was legally abolished in 2004 in Nepal.

What reality did you find regarding Chaupadi in the field?

I mostly travelled to Palpa and Jumla for my project. In Palpa, I found a less extreme form of menstrual ‘exile’. Women there had to sleep in floors, in old mattresses that they could only use while menstruating. They could not enter the kitchen, go fetch water, or worship. They were not given yoghurt, ghee, or any other milk products citing that they would impurify the cow-a living god. This in itself is quite extreme, however, the situation in Jumla was worse. Not many, but some women still lived in makeshift ‘chau godth’ while menstruating. On a brighter side, many did not, much has improved in these few years in Western Nepal. Today, due to awareness, most women stay within their homes. Yet, some few are still too stubborn to let go of archaism. I can confidently say that in a few years, this extreme form of Chaupadi will most definitely end, but for now, it is a problem.

How long did you stay in Jumla and Palpa for your study? And what were your findings?

I stayed in Palpa for 10 days doing field work day in and day out. In this time frame, I met with ward local government’s representatives and initiated a discourse regarding menstrual ‘exile’. The local government’s representatives talked about how pervasive this issue was and how much they wanted to help, but had found their efforts meek in front of a society that pushes to further this practice. I suggested they better educate the younger girls on their legal rights when it comes to Chaupadi and tighten the reaction of local law enforcement authorities when it comes to Chaupadi. There, I also taught adolescent girls at local high schools, conducted seminars on legal rights, and confidence workshops. I also spoke with senior women’s group called (Aama Samuha) within these villages, and found that it is the older women that are furthering this practice, not the men, not the young girls, but these middle aged women that are too afraid to break societal “tradition” all because ‘what will people say, otherwise?’ In Jumla, I stayed there for seven days, primarily worked in the local high school giving legal and confidence workshops to high school girls. There, I worked with the District Police Headquarters’ chief to alleviate the situation of girls most affected by Chaupadi. The policemen and women in Jumla vowed to counsel the girls’ parents. This was a big win for me because I saw a small instance of how the legal field can help improve the situation of Chaupadi. The biggest victory was when the district police headquarters’ officers pledged to provide legal support to girls that are forced into practicing Chaupadi. If girls come for help, these officers will counsel their parents, and if the parents are still resistant to change, they will not shy from taking legal action.

How do girls perceive themselves during their menstruation when ‘exiled’? Are they taking menstruation as a pride or sin?

I taught 9th and 10th grade girls in both Jumla and Palpa. In doing so, I asked the girls to write about their experiences while menstruating. The essays they wrote were nothing short of heartbreaking. Sushmita Sunwar, from Jumla Bazzar, shared agonizing stories of sleepless nights in the dark that she had spent without any mattresses or pillows. She spoke about how much she dreaded getting her period because every month this cycle of solitude and ‘exile’ would repeat itself. Every month, girls like Sushmita would find themselves in a barn sleeping nearby cows, and bulls. This form of societal treatment made these girls perceive menstruation as a sin. Now, their own attitude towards menstruation is that of shame and uncomfort, instead of pride and joy given social discourses.

What do you think should the government and civil society do to improve the status of women in those remote places?

I firmly believe that the government should be working harder in implementing the Chaupadi laws into an everyday reality. The high volume of NGOs in Nepal has created a real vacuum for governmental action and governmental expectations within Nepali people. In reality, the generous work that these NGOs have been doing regarding social improvements should be done by our own government, not international donors that hardly understand Nepali societies and values. The change that these NGOs have tried to implement when it comes to Chaupadi has not been long lasting. They educate women in remote places, some vow to end Chaupadi in the daytime, and force their daughters to sleep in chau goths (huts) at night. If we want radical and long lasting change, it has to come from our own government, and our existing legal framework, not from NGOs that function with international vision and donations.

Should this issue be looked from the legal perspective besides educating and creating awareness in people?

Most definitely. As I said, education and awareness can only do so much, these are the “carrots” but we also need the “stick” if we want to end Chaupadi. Even then, the most educated families in Kathmandu, and some Nepalis even in America practice some form of menstrual ‘exile’. Where there is a Nepali family, educated or not, some form of menstrual ‘exile’ exists and will continue to exist. Therefore, we need to use the “stick” that is local law enforcement. At the end of the day, education and awareness can only do so much. Even amidst such intense NGOs’ efforts in educating and creating awareness, women are still forcing their teenage daughters to sleep in barns, makeshift homes, and ‘chau goths’. At some point, legal intervention needs to occur. At some point, what happened in Jumla–where police officers pledged to provide legal support to girls that are forced into practicing Chaupadi–needs to happen at a national scale. The missing link here is that the girls themselves need to come to the station, and this can only happen after the girls know their own legal rights, when the girls know that menstruation is not a sin, but a blessing.

At some point Nepali women should come together and say, “I am not ashamed to menstruate. I know you, society, try to oppress me for an occurrence so natural, so integral to my womanhood. You try to lock me up in huts, in barns, near animals. No more. I say no more as I know my rights now and I will fight for them; I will fight for my right to a safe bedroom, and a dignified menstruation. Me and my sisters will march to the nearest police headquarter and not stop until I, myself, garner my own freedom.”

As a young lady, what did you realize witnessing such pathetic status of those women in huts, deprived of balanced diet and other basic human rights?

More than anything, I felt rage, such robust rage. What I saw unfold in front of my own eyes was nothing short of injustice. In Nepal, our women, our sisters, our mothers are getting punished for their womanhood. We are getting punished for an occurrence so natural, so universal. This injustice has furthered my passion for global justice and has ignited a fire within me to help end and fight against this practice. This issue should be making every one of us, every Nepali boil in rage and engage in social action. If you are aware of women practicing menstrual ‘exile’ against their will, let them know that there is an alternative. They can legally get the help of local law enforcement and improve their own situation. But we have to all rise against this injustice together. If anything groundbreaking can be done, it can only be done by our own government, our own legal framework, not by international donors and international agendas.

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