Liberating “The Untouchable Beings:” Nepal Takes Steps Towards Eliminating Chhaupadi

In the past week, the Parliament of Nepal took a step forward in the safeguard of women’s rights, passing a law aimed at criminalizing the ancient Hindu practice known as chhaupadi, which consists of banishing women from their home and confining them into huts during menstruation and immediately after childbirth. The new legislation implies a three-month jail sentence or a 3,000 rupee fine (or both) for anyone forcing a woman to conform to the habit. In other words, rather than completely banning the custom, the law gives women “free choice” to either respect or disrespect a norm which has been enforced for generations and belongs to a deeply entrenched belief system. Although it is a big and remarkable achievement, a legal criminalization is not expected to provide a definitive solution for what is first and foremost a problem that affects society and in particular, small communities in the Western countryside which are more likely to respond to norms dictated by religious authorities in the village than to national legislation.

Chhaupadi is rooted in ancient Hindu taboos over menstruation and is translated as “untouchable being.” According to the Hindu tradition, women during menstruation are considered impure and must be isolated from society in order to prevent the rage of the gods. A woman that does not respect these diktats can bring death and destruction to both her family and her community: “if she touches a crop, it wilts; if she fetches water, the well dries up; if she picks fruit, it doesn’t ripen.” In some areas, the restriction extends to girls reading, writing and even just touching books.

A report from Awon has revealed that as many as 95% of girls and women in Nepal’s Western regions practice Chhaupadi. In rural areas, the majority of them are banished into cowsheds and exposed to tremendous health conditions. Several UN reports have described diarrhoea, pneumonia, respiratory illnesses, attacks from snakes, incidents of abuse and rape and high infant mortality rates as some of the most common dangers that women in Nepal face every month when confined in the menstruation huts.

In July, a 19-year old girl named Tulasi Shani died while banished to a cowshed after she was bitten by a snake twice on her head and once on her leg. The girl was the second teenager to die during chhaupadi in less than two months. In May, a 14-year old girl called Lalsara Bika died from a cold contracted in her menstruation hut.

Far from exclusively affecting health and mortality rates, chhaupadi also causes psychological distress to women and girls all across the region. Awon has found that 77% of girls and women felt humiliated during their period, and two-thirds reported feeling lonely and scared when staying in cowsheds.

Although Nepal’s Supreme Court had already outlawed chhaupadi in 2005, the ban was never practically enforced as the government did not consider this practice as a human rights violation, despite being a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Nonetheless, incidents such as the deaths of Shani and Bika have forced Nepal’s government to re-design an enforceable legislation that could compel with international human rights standards.

Whereas the criminalization of the practice is a considerable and remarkable achievement, the action of changing a long-held tradition supported by families and communities and, in many cases, by women themselves is extremely complicated and cannot be exclusively a matter of legality. Education and advocacy programmes that target men, women and traditional healers informing them of the dangers and risks associated with chhaupadi and supporting better hygiene practices are necessary for this custom to be eradicated in the next generation.

The NGO Restless Development has implemented a project aimed at eliminating chhaupadi and to ensure that women and girls have access to better health, nutrition, social support and education. The primary scope of the project is to raise awareness among community leaders and strengthen the connection between local organizations and national governments. In 2017, the project has reached to 3,790 young people and sessions on sexual reproductive health issues and menstruation have been held in 18 schools across Kailali, Dadeldhura and Kanchanpur districts. 20 CSOs have received advocacy training and have developed action plans against gender-based violence and other forms of discrimination during and after menstruation.

Benedetta Zocchi