A young woman in Nepal has died in a fire after being banished from her home under Chhaupadi, a practice that considers menstruating women ‘impure’. Amongst other things, this belief forces women to leave home and stay in inadequate huts for the duration of their menstruation cycle, despite the fact that this practice was first banned and then more recently criminalised in the country.
Twenty one year old Parbati Bogati was killed when a fire started to keep herself warm, in a small unused room of her in-laws’ house, grew significantly and caused her to suffocate as a result of smoke inhalation, according to authorities. An autopsy has been ordered, however there are likely to be no charges laid as Bogati was not forced by anyone to leave her home, instead imposing exile upon herself. According to a distant relative of Bogati, only days before her death she had attended a program organised by the local government centred around educating people about menstruation and the dangers of Chhaupadi.
Chhaupadi is a centuries-old tradition built on the foundation that menstruating women are ‘impure’ and will bring disaster and devastation to a village or community, unless they sequester themselves from their homes. Chhaupadi can also involve the forbidding of women to touch other people, enter the kitchen, prepare food, enter a temple, touch livestock, touch religious idols or go to school. It is a deeply discriminatory and misogynistic practice which revolves around the notion that women are inherently inferior to men.
Already, four people have died in Nepal as a result of chhaupadi this year. Another woman, Amba Bohara, died early in January, along with her two young children. They also suffocated to death and suffered extensive burns in a “menstruation hut”.
Previously, the practice of Chhaupadi was banned in Nepal in 2005 and then criminalised in August 2018, carrying a penalty of three months in jail or a 3000 rupee (US$30) fine for anyone who forced a woman into a menstruation hut. Prior to this, a 2010 government survey found that around 20% of women in the country practiced Chhaupadi, and this number increased to 50% in more rural areas in mid-western and far-western regions.
Even after the ban, anecdotal evidence from activists and campaigners found that despite the dismantlement of menstruation huts in a host of communities, many women still engage in the practice – although sometimes to a lesser degree. This is in part due to stigma, generational traditions, and social pressure. It is of course, impossible to lay charges against social stigma and tradition, making enforcement of the law difficult. In poorer rurals pockets of Nepal, many constituents openly oppose lawmakers who attempt to enforce the law.
Whilst criminalisation of the practice is a start – and although issues with enforcement of the law must still be resolved – the largest hurdle to overcome is changing the minds not only of those who impose the practice on women, but of the women themselves who have been conditioned to believe that menstruation creates a perceived impurity within them that they must shelter others from. As activist Amar Sunar noted after the law went into effect, “laws don’t change attitudes,” and the hardest part of this issue is changing the attitudes of young women and their families, and ensuring there are resources in place for women who take a stand for themselves and others.
Women therefore, must be better educated about reproductive health, social stigmas and the dangers of Chhaupadi in order to keep themselves safe and help lay the foundations for future generations of women to thrive without worrying about social stigma surrounding their menstrual cycle.
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