Can Nepal’s Criminalization Of The ‘Chhaupadi’ Practice Change Generational Beliefs About Women?

The Nepali government criminalized chhaupadi earlier this month, in an effort to end the ancient Hindu practice that forces women who menstruate to leave their homes and stay in small huts or cow sheds because they are considered to be impure while menstruating. This practice also banishes women after childbirth and is built upon the belief that women are unworthy and inferior. Taboos surrounding menstruation also contribute to the idea that women are ‘polluted’ when they menstruate.

Chhaupadi is most often observed in smaller communities, particularly in the western hill areas of Nepal. It is often difficult to enforce the law in these isolated areas, which is why before the law comes into effect in August 2018, authorities will campaign across the country to bring awareness to the new law.

Meanwhile, the practice gained mainstream international recognition when Western media picked up a story about 18-year-old Tulasi Shahi, who died from a snakebite when she was forced to stay in a chhaupadi hut in July. Two other women had also died in 2016 and human rights activists say many that more deaths go unreported.

Furthermore, while chhaupadi was banned by the Nepali Supreme Court in 2005, many continued to follow the practice. The new law, however, carries a fine of $30 (USD) and possible jail time for anyone found to be forcing a woman into a chhaupadi hut during menstruation.

In addition to being banished to a hut or shed, women are often not allowed to enter their homes, kitchens, villages, or prayer rooms, and are forbidden from participating in religious activities. Many women cannot touch men or animals, eat dairy or meat products, and many girls are not allowed to attend school for the duration of their cycle. As well, women who do not observe chhaupadi are often blamed for crop failures, illnesses, natural disasters, or the death of animals. Nonetheless, the women who stay do in these chhaupadi huts face many risks including rape and sexual assault, animal attacks, starvation and dehydration, pneumonia, and health risks from unsanitary and unclean living conditions.

Nonetheless, while this law is a step in the right direction, it may not be enough to stop families from banishing women from their homes every month. For instance, many women are forced by both their families and social pressure to leave their homes. While the law allows for women to tell authorities if they are banished from their homes, the likelihood of these women reporting their own family members is low, as is the likelihood of the law deterring families from forcing women to observe chhaupadi. This is largely due to very old beliefs and traditions held by both women and their families, therefore changing the law alone is not enough, as beliefs also have to change.

To expand, the taboos surrounding menstruation have to be lifted in order for education and conversations about menstruation and women’s rights to take place. Additionally, health education also needs to be provided to women, along with access to menstrual products and clean water to reduce the risk of illness. A woman’s beliefs about her own worth also need to change in order for females to stand up for themselves and other women, and those that continue to enforce chhaupadi need to be reported. Lastly, women need the resources and support to change their own lives and stand against or leave behind those that continue to see women as inferior, unworthy, or impure.

With that said, this practice exists because of long held beliefs and traditions on the part of families and social pressures on the part of women, and until these things change, along with education and the end of taboos surrounding menstruation, chhaupadi will continue to be observed at the great risk of many women.

Ashika Manu