Banished:Why menstruation can mean exile
Believed to be impure, some menstruating women in Nepal are forced from their homes - with sometimes deadly consequences.
A web documentary
by Dirk Gilson
A small village in far west Nepal. Sabrita Bogati prepares her bed for the next few nights. It’s going to be cold—the 30-year-old has been banished from her house for five days.
neighbour brings her food. She throws some slices of bread onto
Sabrita’s plate from a safe distance. She is not allowed to touch
her. Sabrita is impure—because she is menstruating.
This means five days of restrictions, every month.
Sabrita Bogati: All of this is forbidden
prohibitions are based on the ancient tradition of Chhaupadi.
means ‘untouchable’ and padi
means ‘being’, and here it refers to the condition of being
untouchable during menstruation.
In 2006, the Supreme Court of Nepal declared Chhaupadi illegal. However, the tradition still lives on in some parts of the country. Such as here in Marku, Sabrita’s home village.
This is where Sabrita lives with her two children, two cows and a few chickens. But for five days a month she is not allowed inside and has to sleep in the so-called ‘menstrual hut’ in front of her house.
Sabrita Bogati: Snakes slithering around
Sabrita is not alone in her hut tonight. Her neighbour, Madhu Bogati, is also menstruating, but she doesn’t have her own hut. When we put the camera away, a third woman arrived. They told us that sometimes as many as five women have to share one hut.
Why do women in the 21st century still follow these strict rules? Do they do it of their own free will? Are they forced? Pema Lhaki (r) from NFCC International seeks answers to these questions. She has been fighting the taboos around menstruation in her country for more than 10 years.
Pema Lhaki - Destigmatize menstruation
Chhaupadi is mainly practised in the mountain villages of western Nepal—about 1,000 kilometres from the capital Kathmandu. We spent a week travelling through the districts of Achham and Doti.
Most of the villages are located far away from the road. It often takes us several hours to travel just a few kilometres by car. And many villages can only be reached by foot.
People are skeptical
People gather around us wherever we go—like here in Rikhada in the Doti district. They are friendly but sceptical. This is a subject they don’t really speak about. They are also scared. But why?
Although initially reluctant, Bahadur Nepali agrees to speak with us. Like most men from this region, he works in India. He is only here for a few days to visit his family. He proudly tells us that his wife and daughters don’t have to stay in a separate hut outside the house. He’s come up with a different solution.
Bahadur has built a menstrual chamber under the house, approximately one-and-a-half metres long and one metre wide.
Girls in the chamber
Sometimes as many as three or four women must share this chamber. ‘But they are allowed to bring blankets to make it more comfortable’, Bahadur Nepali tells us. He has what seems like a simple explanation as to why things have to be this way.
We do it for God
Chhaupadi does have religious origins. It is connected to the Hindu principle of ritual purity. Women are said to lose this purity during menstruation, possibly because religious leaders had no other way to explain the monthly flow of blood. They considered it a threat and as something supernatural, so declared menstruating women impure and ordered them to keep their distance from society.
Walk of shame
This is still the case today. The shortest route to the next village passes a sacred site. Since menstruating women must stay away from such places, they have to take a different route. By chance, a group of schoolgirls comes along while we are filming. One is menstruating.
Bhaku Kumari Bista
The girls won’t speak to us about Chhaupadi. But then we meet Bhaku Kumari Bista and her mother. After some hesitation, Bhaku agrees to talk to Pema and shows us her menstrual hut.
Fear of snakes Pema Lhaki talkes to Kumari Bista.
Pema Lhaki: They are scared
Ishwora Bhul: She didn't move
Chamber where Sarmila Bhul died
This is the chamber where Sarmila Bhul died. No one knows what happened that night—there was never an autopsy. Her parents think she suffocated. The nights had been cold, they say, that’s why she had sealed off the only opening very tightly.
Yagyaraj Bhul shows us where it happened. The chamber was under his house. They couldn’t bear to stay there anymore and the ruin still reminds them of the death of their beloved daughter. They have six more children—all daughters. Yagyaraj promises that none of them will ever have to stay outside during menstruation.
Is there any way out?
Sarmila Bhul’s case isn’t just an unfortunate exception. Local newspapers regularly report on incidents related to Chhaupadi. Women who freeze to death, get bitten by snakes or are raped in their huts - another reason why the tradition was banned in 2006. The government has been trying to improve the plight of such women since then.
But although some villages have since been declared ‘Chhaupadi free’, the tradition is still a part of life for most women in the far west of Nepal. Even the destruction of some of the huts since 2006 hasn’t changed this practice. The hope that women would sleep in their houses once the huts were gone turned out to be unrealistic. The huts have either been rebuilt or the women have to sleep outside in the fields—now completely unprotected.
Pema Lhaki: Who are we?
You need to talk
So what can be done? ‘To seriously address the issue and to break the taboos, we must begin earlier,’ says Pema Lhaki. When you talk to the girls and women you soon realise that the breeding ground for their fears is a lack of knowledge about their own bodies.
Pema Lhaki: They don't know what menstruation is
This is exactly where Pema wants things to change: Women and men need to understand what happens in the body of a menstruating woman, why she bleeds. The idea is that once they understand that nothing supernatural or threatening is happening, they will begin to ask themselves: Why do I have to sleep in a hut, why am I considered untouchable, why can’t I enter the kitchen? And, above all, why should something bad happen if women don’t obey these rules?
the same time, women also need to know more about menstrual hygiene
and how to deal with their period. Most of them use old pieces of
cloth. Pema introduces them to reusable pads and so-called menstrual
She estimates it will take another decade or two before Chhaupdi vanishes entirely.
Until then, Sabrita has to obey the traditions. It’s day four of her period. Tomorrow morning she will go through the monthly ritual to regain purity.
Sabrita has allowed us to film the final step of Chhaupadi: the ritual cleaning. First, Sabrita has to bathe and wash her clothes.
According to tradition, an unmarried virgin must collect urine from one of Sabrita’s cows. Today this is the job of her neighbour, Uttara Bogati.
The cow is holy according to Hindu belief and the urine is supposed to purify Sabrita.
Blessing Sabrita's house
The unmarried virgin then blesses Sabrita's house.
Blessing Sabrita's clothes
And her freshly washed clothes.
Sabrita regained purity
Sabrita has now regained purity and is allowed to enter her house again. The kitchen is her first port of call. She is finally allowed to cook for herself and her family again for the first time in five days—and until her next period.
Credits / Help Nepal
footage for this documentary was shot a few weeks before the
devastating earthquakes in Nepal. Due to the great distance from the
epicentres of the two quakes, the villages portrayed here were spared
and there were no fatalities or injuries.
However, the situation of those in the affected regions remains dire. And it will remain dire for a long time! Pema Lhaki and her team from NFCC Int. are currently in the affected areas to provide the goods and services that are most needed, such as medical services, sanitation and clean water supplies.
Those who wish to support their work can do so here:
This web-documentary was supported by the ‘Innovation in Development Reporting Program’ of the European Journalism Center: http://ejc.net/