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Seclusion During Menstruation Continues in Nepal Despite Supreme Court Ruling

Global Press Institute - Fri, 21 Oct 2011 10:52 GMT
Author: Global Press Institute
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KATHMANDU, NEPAL ­- Every month for the last 24 years, Belu Damai, 40, from Bhairavsthan, a village in Nepal's Far-Western region, lived in a cowshed during the several days of her menstrual cycle. "Chaupadi pratha" is a Hindu tradition that forbids women from touching anyone during menstruation for fear that it will anger the gods. Damai says her family forced her to live in the cowshed during her period. But the shed lacked insulation and was freezing during the winter. After 24 years of enduring this ritual, Damai froze to death one night last winter while adhering to this tradition. Her family found her dead body in the cowshed the next morning. Six months later, Dibyashwori Joshi, an 18-year-old from Rithapatha, another village in the Far-Western region, died of a snake bite while adhering to the chaupadi pratha tradition in a shed outside her family's home. Like Damai and Joshi, hundreds of women in Nepal's Far-Western and Mid-Western regions have lost their lives, have become the victims of sexual abuse and have missed school during menstruation because of the chaupadi tradition. The chaupadi practice is still prevalent in Mid- and Far-Western Nepal as families believe that women will anger the gods and make men, children, crops and cattle impure if they touch them during menstruation. Women are, therefore, forced to live in sheds during their periods, which international health officials confirm poses many risks. The tradition also has had a negative impact on education, as thousands of girls are forced to miss school during their periods. In Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, the tradition remains common among older generations while younger Nepalis here are abandoning the tradition. The Supreme Court declared chaupadi a human rights violation in 2004, but the government is still working on policies to eradicate it. Chaupadi is a tradition linked with Hinduism, the religion practiced by the majority of Nepalis. According to religious folklore, Indra, the king of heaven, was accused of killing a Brahmin, someone from the Hindu priest caste, says Ghanashyam Lekhak, a religious priest and advocate of Sanskrit, the primary liturgical language of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Lekhak says that Indra committed illicit acts with women during his quest to redeem his sin, so now all women have to go through menstruation as punishment for these acts. "That's why women are considered impure and untouchable during menstruation," Lekhak says. "But this is an ill tradition." In Far-Western and Mid-Western Nepal, families isolate women from the home during menstruation and also immediately after childbirth. Advocate Poonam Chand says this is because various religious books have deemed menstruation and pregnancy to be sins, and chaupadi is the punishment. "While menstruation or immediately after giving birth, there exists this old tradition of not touching anyone or anything, not to enter or work at the house and also not to consume milk or yogurt," Chand says. "There is also a superstition that if they don't follow this, they'll infuriate the gods." In most of the villages, families build a separate structure 20 to 25 meters away from the home, known as the chaupadi shed, for women to spend their menstrual days. Dhana Joshi, from Daija, another village in this region, says her family makes her stay in a shed during her period. "They don't let us inside the house," she says. "They say that it'll make the gods angry." She says families fear this will affect their cattle. "They fear that the cattles would die if the gods become angry," Joshi says. "It seems like being imprisoned for five days. It becomes worse than a jail." During menstruation, the "impure" women are allowed to touch other women, but they're not allowed to touch men or children, for fear that it will make them impure. They are also not allowed to touch cattle, any living plants or fruit-bearing trees for fear that they will die. Joshi says that if they touch them by mistake, they must sprinkle sunpani, water in which a piece of gold has been dipped, or cow urine, which is considered pure in Hinduism, on them to purify them. According to Hindu beliefs, cows came to existence from the mouth of Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe, and are favored by Krishna, another Hindu god. So anything the cow produces, such as milk, dung or urine, is considered pure. Likewise, gold is considered the purest of all elements, so gold or gold dipped in water can purify things and people. If a menstruating woman touches a man and he can't take a shower, the gold-infused water can purify him. Women aren't allowed to go on the terrace or upper floors of a house either because they might cross over the men and the plants on the lower floor. Instead, women must live in the shed. But many Nepali women say that it's not safe or healthy for them to live in these sheds. Since the sheds lack lights and locks, women spend the nights in fear of animals or men with ill intentions. The sheds also lack bathrooms. "There are no facilities," says Sunita Nepali, 19, from Jogbuda, a village in Far-Western Nepal. "We stay awake most nights out of fear." Consumption of dairy, such as milk, butter and yogurt, is also restricted. Health workers say that keeping women and children in the sheds during menstruation and immediately after giving birth has negative consequences on their health. "It has a negative impact - physically and mentally," says Binod Ojha, a health worker. "Lack of nutritious food and excessive bleeding can cost them their lives." Girls say this tradition also makes it impossible for them to go to school during menstruation. "They say you can't go to school for five days [during menstruation]," says Neelam Chand, a student at Saraswati Secondary School in Sisag, a village in Nepal's Far-Western region. She says that school authorities once suspended her for five days for attending school during her period. She says that the tradition also prohibits them from showering, combing their hair or wearing vermillion powder - red powder worn by married women on their foreheads - or tika­ -either a makeup accessory or vermillion powder that men and women wear on their foreheads after worshipping at a temple. "This is the result of superstition, illiteracy and lack of awareness," Poonam Chand says. Miles away from the Far-Western and Mid-Western districts of Nepal, the older generation still follows this tradition of isolation during menstruation in Kathmandu. But Nepalis from the younger generation in the capital city say they do not. Rachana Khadka, 19, from Kathmandu, says she treats her menstrual days as any other day. But she says that her mother and elder sister still don't enter the kitchen, do household chores or sleep with their husbands during menstruation. She says that her grandmother tells them to stay away from her and not touch her during their periods. "But girls from my generation aren't obliged to follow this tradition," Khadka says. "My brothers and sisters try and explain to my grandmother that menstruation is a natural phenomenon." While the perception toward menstruation is changing in Kathmandu, Khadka says that the state and the society must spread awareness about this issue in Far-Western and Mid-Western Nepal. Krishna Thapa, who works for a nongovernmental organization, NGO, in Kathmandu, says that even in the city, there is a long way to go. He says that the religious belief attached to the practice is a major reason why people still stick with it. "This [tradition of discriminating against women during their menstruation] is so engraved in our Hindu religion and our mentality that even the more educated men in the cities dare not speak against it," he says. He says that some young people who live in nuclear families away from their relatives don't follow this tradition and treat their menstrual days normally. But he says that since the tradition has prevailed for generations, others in the younger generation may not want to revolt and hurt the culture that the older generation values. "Despite the support from men, some women [even in Kathmandu] still believe menstruation to be impure," Thapa says. "They still don't enter the kitchen or sleep with their husbands [during menstruation]." Regardless of religion and tradition, others say chaupadi is a human rights issue. Menuka Bishta, a women's rights advocate, says the chaupadi tradition counts as violence against women. "This is a violation of human rights," she says. "This is definitely violence against women." The Supreme Court of Nepal recognized the chaupadi tradition as discriminatory against women and a violation of women's human rights in 2004. It directed the government to implement policies to eliminate it. The court's directive states that the prime minister and ministerial council's office should declare chaupadi an ill tradition and that the Ministry of Health and Population should form a team of doctors to study the impact of this tradition on women's and children's health. The court's directive also instructs the Ministry of Local Development to mobilize local governmental bodies to raise awareness about the chaupadi tradition and the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare to develop guidelines to end this discrimination against women and girls. "However, as of now, none of the directives have been implemented by the government," Chand says. Despite the directive from the Supreme Court, the continuity of this tradition proves how much these beliefs have been enrooted in the society, says Shanta Sedai, a Supreme Court lawyer. Sedai says that, regardless of the government's implementation, people who understand the ill effects and discriminatory nature of this tradition should educate others about it through awareness programs. "Only then can we support the implementation of the court's directives and help put an end to this tradition," Sedai says. Social worker Loksari Kunwar says that chaupadi's deep roots in Nepali society and the lack of policies from the state have enabled the tradition to remain alive. Sushil Ghimire, secretary of the Ministry of Local Development, says that the government has not been able to make an act to end the chaupadi tradition yet because it has been in a transitional phase. Nepal became a republic in 2008, and the government is in the process of drafting a new constitution. But Ghimire says the federal government has made an operative guideline to end the chaupadi tradition, and the Supreme Court has given directives to local bodies in the Far- and Mid-Western regions. The operative guideline includes a provision to form committees at the district, metropolitan and local levels. But he says that only three of the 19 districts in the Far- and Mid-Western regions have formed district-level committees so far. Mani Kumar Gyawali, a local development officer in Kanchanpur, a district in the Far-Western region, admits the implementation of the guideline has been delayed. "Due to hectic schedule, we could not implement," says Gyawali, adding that a limited budget and resources have also posed challenges. "However, we will initiate it in this [running] fiscal year." The Council of Ministers has declared chaupadi the worst form of social practices. The Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare also implemented a three-year pilot project in coordination with Save the Children Norway, an international NGO, to raise awareness, implement health checkups and safety measures and form committees of senior citizens to pressure communities to end the chaupadi tradition.

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