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From Goakars To Chaupadis – We Love Isolating Menstruating Women In Period Huts

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

Several taboos surrounding menstruation are prevalent in India, but a new height of taboo would be reached if there was a complete abandonment of an individual when they menstruate.

According to the Guardian, “The practice of banishing women and girls is most prevalent among the Gond and Madiya ethnic groups. The Gonds are the largest indigenous group in central India and hail from the states of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.” When women of these groups menstruate every month, they are shunned from their homes and sent to unique huts called ‘gaokars‘ and ‘kurma ghars‘.

A hut

Overview Of Gaokars And Kurma Ghars

These period huts are considered as public property, and there is, therefore, no upkeep for the same. They do not contain kitchens, since menstruation and cooking are two words not to be uttered in the same sentence for a large amount of the country’s population, and the same idea is echoed here too. Located at the boundaries of the village, menstruating women stay in these huts for the entire duration of their period, since, even their entry in the village is considered impure, and polluting.

The NGO Sparsh (Society of People’s Action in Rural Services and Health) has made the existence of these period huts known to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The NGO’s founder talks about how they visited 223 gaokars in tribal areas and based upon their research, 98% lack even a proper bed, forget electricity and other basic amenities. Most of the gaokars have temporary bathrooms made with bamboo.

The Problems Faced By Women

Having no contact with the outside world, the women living in these huts remain helpless and in pain. They only get to interact with a family member, and that too is menial interaction, since they only come by to drop a meal and leave afterwards. These small period shacks are havens of heat, dirt, discomfort and hardship for the inhabiting women.

Such women, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, aren’t even allowed to pray to their gods, with access to temples denied, and consumption of the temple prasad considered profane. Since the location of such huts is on the outskirts, wild animals commonly make an appearance there too. Reports of women dying due to snake bites while being isolated in the gaokar are frequent.

Government Callousness

Unfortunately, this is not a practice that has been propagated only by indigenous groups of the country. Even the government can be seen participating in the same.

In Uttarakhand’s Ghurchum village of Champawat district, a government-funded building was constructed. This would have been good news in any other case, but the building was constructed to send women there during their menstrual cycle to isolate them. Also, these government funds were meant to be used for some other purpose. The gram pradhan of the village called it a ‘jan milan kendra‘ (public meeting centre) and denied that any woman was forcefully banished there, claiming it to be false reportage.

Similarly, Koovalapuram village in Tamil Nadu’s Madurai district has within it a curious guesthouse or muttuthurai, a space meant for ‘polluted’ women, created by the village community itself. Women spend five days here while menstruating due to the strict community norms of the village. The situation is worse for girls attaining puberty, as they are supposed to stay in the guesthouse for a full month—even women who have just had a delivery stay here, that too with their newborn babies. The process is systematic, with women receiving sacks that have specific utensils to be used during menstruation for food. The village women have internalised the myth that they must stay at the guesthouse; otherwise, they shall be turned to dust.

Nepalese Chaupadis

Even worse, the fact of the matter is that such huts are not confined to India, but are found in other countries as well. A very similar example of the same can be seen right across the border in Nepal, with their chaupadis. The situation of women in chaupadis is, in many cases, worse than what is seen in India. Snake bites, peak hot and cold temperatures, suffocation due to lack of ventilation and physical assault are some factors that make the lives of women miserable in these chaupadis.

The act of isolating them was criminalised in 2018, but it is still being practised today, which reflects the deeply ingrained societal mentality. Nonetheless, arrests are being made in Nepal for the violation, so a move towards breaking stigma can be seen. Still, the jail term is only three months with a fine of 3000 rupees, and the first arrest was only made 18 months after the legal intervention, so there is a long way to go until a substantive change can be brought about.

The act of banishing women to huts may be seen in villages and far-flung areas, but even in cosmopolitan surroundings, similar practices do exist. The concept of physically existing period huts is not formalised, but the pattern of isolation is still prevalent because there is always an underlying theme of impurity that is associated with menstruation, whatever the area may be.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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