On Tuesday evening, a woman in the western Nepal Bajura district, along with her two sons, suffocated to death in a “menstrual hut.” Amba Bohara, 35, was forced to sleep in a windowless mud and stone hut during her period. Bohara and her two sons, aged 12 and 9, had lit a fire to keep warm in Nepal’s freezing winter weather, but the windowless hut filled with smoke, and Bohara and her children were discovered dead the next morning by her mother-in-law. Parts of the blankets covering the trio were burned, and Bohara had suffered burns to her legs.
Police official Uddhav Singh Bhat told Reuters that Bohara and her children had “died of suffocation because there was no ventilation, and they had made the chamber airtight to beat the cold. We pulled out their bodies with burned limbs.”
Under Nepali law, the practice of banishing menstruating women and girls to sheds or huts for the duration of their period was outlawed in 2005. Last year, punishments of 3-month jail sentences and a $27 fine were introduced. Senior police officers on the case said they are still deciding whether any charges would be applied after postmortems have been performed.
Mohana Ansari of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said that “women will continue to die unless there are consequences for enforcing this tradition.”
The old practice is called “chhaupadi,” and is linked to Hinduism, which considers women to be “untouchable” during menstruation and after childbirth. During their periods, women are considered as “impure,” and are banned from touching cattle, accessing milk and some foods, and from using the toilet and washing facilities in their houses, for fear that they will bring bad luck to their family if these rules aren’t followed. The mud huts in which menstruating women and girls are sent to live are far from the houses in the village, as communities fear that if they aren’t sent away, they will bring misfortunes like natural disasters to the community.
Although the practice has been banned by Nepal’s Supreme Court, the law has had little impact in western Nepal. There are many dangers of this traditional practice for the women and girls involved. These include being exposed to extreme cold in the winter, snake bites, criminal attacks, and also suffocation from smoke caused by fires made to heat the freezing huts. Unfortunately, Bohara’s death isn’t an isolated case. In 2016, a woman also died from smoke inhalation, and a month before the law was passed, a teenage girl died after being bitten by a snake.
However, despite the introduction of jail sentences and fines, adherence to the practice continues, with Bohara’s death highlighting this. The topic of menstruation must be de-stigmatized in the rural western areas of Nepal. Progress will inevitably be slow, as this practice is deep-rooted in traditions, with each generation terrified of the potential consequences of rebellion. However, aid workers such as Gyanashyam Nagarkoti has been encouraging people to follow safe menstrual practices, persuading families to create secluded rooms inside their houses for women and girls to observe the practice in, instead of outdoors, to show people that nothing bad will happen if this change is made. This incremental adjustment is a big step in the right direction, although large-scale work by organizations such as Nagarkoti’s Surya Social Service Society is needed to persuade people to shift their long-held beliefs in order to protect women and girls. Along with stricter law enforcement, fines, and jail sentences, these combined efforts by nongovernmental organizations and government policies will slowly contribute to more discussions taking place, questioning the relevance of such practices.