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Women and girls the whole world over menstruate each month. Regardless of color, creed, nationality or religion, it is part of a universally shared experience that transcends all boundaries. But most of us aren’t marched off to jail-like sheds and forced into frightening seclusion just because we are menstruating. For many of the girls who are, it’s an uncomfortable and scary experience. If it isn’t snakes, it is male passer-bys who harass them, or in the worst cases, rape them. These dangers create physical fear. And it’s an experience that surely has a powerful impact on a young girl’s psyche and sense of self.
I am especially thinking about women and girls in Nepal. Nepal is my home country, yet I saw it from a whole new perspective this last July, when I returned to accompany two NPR journalists on a reporting trip to both Kathmandu and the remote Far West. As one of the world’s leading nonprofit organizations committed to water, sanitation and menstrual hygiene, Jane Greenhalgh and Michaeleen Doucleff came to WaterAid for help with a story on teen girls who are pushing back against menstrual hygiene taboos and a practice in Nepal called Chhaupadi.
Hardly a hut
Chhaupadi is a tradition in mid-Western and Western Nepal where women and girls are forced to sleep in outdoor sheds known as goths (exposed hut, without walls, sometimes without a roof) for 5-7 days during menstruation. I’d heard of chhaupadi vaguely in my prior years working with local communities in Nepal, but I didn’t really understand what it meant until I saw it first-hand. It was when I met the girls and women who continue to practice it—spoke to them and listened to them—that I actually felt their grief.
More often than not, the sheds are far away from where the girls that sleep in them actually live. On our second night in Thankot, Tatapani VDC, Jane and I hiked about twenty minutes uphill towards the jungle to find one of the goths where we were told that six girls between the ages of twelve and fourteen would be sleeping. The night was pitch black, and I found the walk terrifying. The young girls who led us there kept warning us about snakes, which only added to my unease. I had a flashlight, but even then could barely find my way. Finally we arrived.
When your period is considered a curse
As we spoke to the girls, we learned a lot about the reasoning behind this practice. Or their reasoning….or their family’s reasoning, actually. Some girls said if they didn’t sleep outside while they were on their period, people at home would be cursed, get sick and their goats would die. Others said menstruation was a curse and they didn’t want to anger the gods, or that their hands and feet would get deformed.
All of them believed it is a sin to be close to their family members while they are on their periods. They can’t eat with their families, use the same water sources, or even touch the men in their families, lest they be responsible for ‘polluting’ them. The whole array of answers were as fascinating to me as they were disturbing.
Unprotected and vulnerable
We were only with the girls for about a half hour, but I was uncomfortable and uneasy the whole time. You are so exposed out there in the middle of the darkness. I felt vulnerable. I can’t imagine how they feel, spending all night, many nights in a row, out in the open.
By the time that Jane and I returned to our own accommodations in Thankot village, I was deeply shaken. There was torrential rain every night we were there, and I couldn’t stop thinking about 14 year old Kamala who I knew was sleeping out in the goth. I thought of her and how she must be coping with her open roof. She must have gotten completely drenched.
We were sleeping outside, too, and I was scared of snakes slithering up in the middle of the night and biting us. The girls had told that snake bites in the area can be deadly, and I was terrified. Even so, I wasn't sleeping in an open shed twenty minutes walk from the village. Nor did I have to worry about some drunk men stumbling across where I was sleeping. Relatively speaking, I was safe and sound.
A world away
It is so hard for me to reconcile my world with theirs. We are all women. They are just young girls. And starting at the tender age of 11 or 12, they eat and sleep in these sheds for 5-7 nights every month, simply because they are on their periods. Can you even imagine?
Chhaupadi is a very extreme practice that is harmful to a girl’s upbringing in many ways. It instills fear and shame. As a Nepali-American woman myself, I have always valued the importance of culture and tradition and, most of all—the essential need to respect other people’s beliefs and values. But even so, I found this experience appalling.
It’s time to take action
I could feel the girls’ fear and angst. Some of them were so shy and reserved, which makes sense when you consider that they’ve been raised to believe that they are impure and dirty during menstruation—and that menstruation itself is a sin. This is so hard for me to reconcile when menstruation is the most natural, intrinsic phenomenon that half the world’s population experiences. And it prepares us to create life! How can this incredibly powerful reality be considered such a sin?
The experience has left me grateful that this is an issue that organizations like WaterAid are tackling, and appreciative that media outlets like NPR understand the urgency of bringing development issues like this one to light. It has also left me thinking hard about what we (all of us!) need to do to help eradicate this practice. It’s not about destroying the physical infrastructure of a goth—that’s the easy part. It’s about changing mindsets and tackling the stigma and cultural taboos associated with menstruation. That’s the longest, hardest part, but I know it can be done.