Last month, a young woman died in a small hut in Accham, Nepal, because of the heavy stigma attached to menstruation in Nepalese society.
26-year-old Dambara Upadhyay of Timalsena village had been observing an old tradition called chaupadi, where a menstruating woman is made to live outside of the family home, because she is considered “unclean” and her presence might, as NPR reports, “anger the gods.” Upadhyay had herself insisted on upholding the tradition, by staying in the hut one extra night, even when her family had requested to come back inside. And on the morning of November 19, she was found dead. The cause of her death is still unclear, but this is neither the first nor last case of its kind.
Chaupadi deaths have been reported across Nepal. Left entirely to their own defences, women have been mauled by wild animals, or have suffocated while lighting fires to keep warm. Upadhyay’s death also prompted a response from Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal. The practice was outlawed in 2005, but continues to be an imposition of patriarchal and religious values of “purity” in many areas. And it is literally killing women.
Menstrual taboos have dogged women in all regions all over the world. Girls in Uganda have to miss school because they are observing their “week of shame.” Popular superstition prevents menstruating women from watering plants or handling food.
There have been various attempts to challenge these unfair punishments meted out to women. Two years ago, personal hygiene brand Whisper addressed these superstitions in their #TouchThePickle ad campaigns. And last year we saw Nikita Azad wage a significant battle against Sabrimala temple, for restricted menstruating women from entering its premises.
But in an overwhelming number of households, regardless of class or education status, many of these superstitions and restrictions continue to be observed. A lot of this has to do with the staggeringly low level of understanding that people have about menstruation. Then there’s also the matter of access to menstrual hygiene products. In China, only 2% of women use tampons, a fact that was only highlighted following Olympian swimmer Fu Yuanhui’s comments about menstruation. Only 12% of women in India use sanitary napkins, while others only have dirty rags, sand or sawdust. Limited availability has also meant limited scope for talking about menstruation, and unpacking the many unfounded and unscientific fears or assumptions about it.
All of this has sustained traditions like chaupadi in Nepal, and it is of utmost importance to challenge these ways of thinking before more women must die alone in huts.