TW: Mention of sexual violence
With its picturesque mountains and exquisite temples, Nepal has garnered itself the reputation of being one of the most captivating tourist spots in southeast Asia, frequented by travellers from all around the world. In the remote far-western parts of the relatively small country, just outside the residential villages, tourists might find themselves encountering poorly-constructed huts (often made of mud and straw) lacking in bedding, furniture, and even basic sanitary facilities. Such are the characteristics of a ‘chhau’ hut, where menstruating women find themselves exiled to, every month during their periods.
Chhaupadi huts (or menstruation huts) are often shared by multiple families living in the village. Women and girls who are exiled to these huts are left with little to no amenities to fend for themselves. From the hottest of summers to the coldest of winters, they have no choice but to retreat to these unhygienic sheds as soon as they start menstruating. Proper and hygienic sanitary products are luxuries mostly inaccessible; they are left with nothing but old, unclean rags to soak up the menstrual blood. When rags are not available, some resort to using hay, sand, or ash to soak up menstrual blood. Some places lack clean running water, forcing menstruators into a painful fight against urogenital bacterial infections and reproductive health problems arising from lack of hygiene and sanitation.
The word “chhaupadi” itself is derived from a Nepali word having the negative connotations of ‘impurity’ often associated with menstruation. The belief stems from an undoubtedly patriarchal Hindu myth in the Vedas, wherein Indra commits the act of “brahma-hatya” (killing a sage), and for his evil deed, women are punished with the curse of menstruation. Despite the religious undertones of the practice, menstruating women cannot even take refuge in the idea of God during their exile, as praying or worship of any form is forbidden.
The Chhaupadi hut takes the form of a ‘gaokar’ in India, where the practice is just as frequent in the states of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, and Orissa. Without a place to cook their food, women have to rely on a family member to bring them their meals regularly. The huts are considered to be public property, hence nobody looks into it for maintenance and upkeep. These huts situated in the outskirts of the villages have little to no protection for the women residing in them. There have been countless incidents of sexual violence and rape meted out to these women while they were isolated. Other times, there have been reports of wild animals and snakes attacking the women, often proving to be fatal. Women have died due to asphyxiation, or have been burnt alive in these chambers while trying to light a fire to keep themselves warm. In 2018, during a cyclone rampage in Tamil Nadu, a 14-year old girl was killed while she was in isolation during her periods.
Although the practice of Chhaupadi was criminalised in Nepal in August 2018 with a hefty fine (of Rs. 3000) imposed on those who were caught practicing it, the isolation continues to take place as 77% of the population still continue with the custom. It begs a vital question. Despite the large number of deaths, assaults, and the trauma it causes to the women, why is this practice so widely prevalent in south-Asian countries? Well, for one, the traditions have been passed down for centuries on end; it is not an easy feat to uproot centuries worth of patriarchal religious stigma that has its roots deep in the societal fabric of these countries. Some fear that God might ‘get angry’ if they fail to uphold this age-old custom. The fear of being ostracised or excommunicated from their society also prevents women from speaking up against it. They are reluctant to report to the law enforcement as it would mean betraying their own families, and in turn, their ‘honour’.
The practice of seclusion of menstruating people goes beyond the range of south-Asian religious beliefs, as women in Ethiopia are forced to leave their homes during their periods. Even during childbirth, the pregnant woman is supposed to give birth alone in the woods without any help- often risking the lives of both the mother and the infant. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a common practice among African countries which makes it harder for women to menstruate freely or give birth. Women are rejected the autonomy over their own bodies, and they are segregated, usually against their wills.
This physical seclusion takes various forms, other than the confinement to huts- women are not allowed to touch other family members, food, or cattle for the sake of maintaining the sanctity of their households. Any food they touch or water they use is considered to be ‘polluted’ and ‘unholy’. Some fear that menstruating people are always prone to getting possessed by evil spirits or subjected to black magic by maleficent people.
Even in urban towns and cities, menstruating people are made to sleep in separate rooms or ‘verandahs’ (balconies) to prevent them from getting in contact with other (especially male) family members. They are made to wear separate clothes and use separate utensils from the rest of the family. Some are not allowed to shower or wash themselves as it would mean using the common bathroom, and in turn pose a risk of polluting the other members of the family. Even girls from educated families are subjected to similar unavailing ‘customs’ during menstruation.
Activists are trying to help girls in Nepal by providing them with menstrual cups to battle the age-old Chhaupadi tradition. They found that it has a 92% acceptance rate among young girls, as their families allowed them to stay at homes and cook food, unaware of the fact that they were menstruating. However, this is regarded as a ‘band-aid’ solution to the problem, since it has little to do with actually creating a change in the religious, cultural, and social mentalities of the people.
All of the stigma and taboo associated with menstruation is a result of the belief that menstrual blood is ‘impure’ and ‘unholy’. The lack of knowledge and awareness about basic human anatomy and the female reproductive system leads to the myriad of superstitions and steadfast prohibitions surrounding menstruation. Period blood is not ‘dirty blood’ or filled with toxins; and yet, menstruating people are treated as untouchable. According to this survey conducted by Youth Ki Awaaz in association with WSSCC, 90.1% of respondents believed that certain activities should be prohibited for menstruating people (such as bathing, praying, and even talking to the opposite sex). 79% of Indian girls reported that they were not aware of menstrual hygiene practices.
We are taught from childhood that menstruation is something shameful, which can only be talked about in hushed voices (or better still, not at all). The humiliation may sometimes take the form of ‘menstruation shaming’ in schools by fellow students or even teachers; in 2017, a 12-year-old girl from southern India committed suicide after being shamed by a teacher for having period stains on her clothes. Countless women across the world undergo severe trauma resulting due to isolation, some having to potentially put their lives at risk for the sake of ‘protecting’ their families. Another example of this institutionalized oppression would be the controversy surrounding the Sabarimala temple, where women of reproductive age are still not allowed to step inside (despite the ban being lifted). It goes to show that legislation is not proving to be enough, as there are multiple ways around it; what is truly necessary is education and awareness programs at the grassroot levels of society.
The entire process of ‘othering’ menstruating people is something that stems from the patriarchal notion that women are lesser beings. Our value is judged on the basis of our reproductive abilities- a good, pure woman is someone who makes the patriarch of the family happy by being in his service forever. Her sexuality must not be expressed at any point of time: she exists only to be used by men whenever they please. Our bodies have been dictated over, used, abused, mutilated, and violated for centuries- most of us still do not know what having autonomy over ourselves means. The Chhaupadi huts are only but a physical manifestation of the deeply ingrained misogyny; the change can take place only within the communities when menstruating people decide to stand up for themselves and uproot the belief systems that have oppressed them perpetually.