Have you ever been to Nepal?
I have not, but I hear about it in the news every now and then. And what I sometimes hear, I don’t like. Nepal is one of several countries that still practices the building and use of Menstruation Huts. Though varied in location, we felt including the Menstruation Huts of Nepal on Sites of Girlhood was vital – demonstrating that centuries-old harmful practices still exist, and the locations on which they rest are both active sites and, at times, hallowed ground. Girls have died while using menstruation huts, due to the rigorous social customs that must be followed during menstruation. Whatever the reason, these huts are becoming synonymous in the Western world with gender discrimination and – to some – gender-based violence.
Today, I want to explain why it matters.
Located in South Asia, Nepal is a small, landlocked country nestled between Tibet and India. Within Nepal, you will find eight of the ten highest mountains in the world, including the most famous of all – Mt. Everest. Yet other regions of the country include flat plains and tropics.
Nepal is as diverse in its people as it is in the land. Over 125 different ethnic groups call the country home, with 123 languages spoken. There are also many religions, but Nepal is primarily Hindu country. It is from Hinduism that Nepal derives its patriarchal legal system and social norms, which have a significant impact on girls and women — who are controlled in body, labor, income, mobility, sexuality, ideology, and even identity.
Menstrual huts are a form of that control. In recent years, the international community has become more aware of them. For example, in January 2018, a girl named Gauri Kumari Bayak made international news when she died in a menstrual hut. The hut was later smashed apart. Talking to the New York Times, we learned that Gauri wasn’t some oppressed, ignorant stereotype you might think of. Instead, as stated by her father-in-law, Gauri was 20 years old, a bit of a feminist, and loved to read.
Why did she die? What makes menstrual huts so harmful?
Menstrual huts are part of the Hindu tradition of “chaupadi (CHOW-pa-dee) pratha” – where women and girls are forced to spend days in isolation during their periods – and, at times, during childbirth.. Similar traditions are found throughout the world, where myths and taboos force menstruation to be a contentious topic – if it is discussed at all.
This isolation happens in mud huts, cowsheds, and caves. Hindus believe menstruation makes a woman “religiously impure” – so she must essentially be quarantined to prevent “infecting” others. As Jeffrey Gettleman explained in a New York Times article, women “are considered polluted, even toxic, and an oppressive regime has evolved around this taboo…. Some of the spaces [in which they are isolated] are as tiny as a closet, walls made of mud or rock…” In particular, Gettleman revealed that Gauri had died from smoke inhalation from the fire she was using to keep warm during the bitter Himalayan winter.
A quote from another Nepalese girl gives us a glimpse into the belief system: “Immediately after I get my period, I leave the house for the shed, quietly without touching anything or anyone. My brothers will be sick if I touch them. The cattle will die, and the food will be rotten. There will be a death in the family if we don’t follow it.”
These huts are dangerous. Only 30% have access to a toilet or electricity, forcing girls to walk in the middle of the night to relieve themselves and leaving them with little defenses. They are prone to wild animals or – perhaps worse – people who wish to abuse them. They are left to fend for themselves, to bring their own food and water, and to deal with these things during what can be a painful and confusing time for girls. “Compounding the situation is that if the young women and girls encounter any health issues while in menstrual exile, they are expected to wait until menstruation is completed before seeking medical care.” (Prabisha) This means that girls do die while in the huts – often from illness, poisonous snake bits, scorpion bites, or animal attacks. As Gettleman stated, “Each year, at least one woman or girl — often more — dies in these huts, from exposure to the cold, smoke inhalation, or attacks by animals. Just this June (in 2018), another young woman was found dead in a mensutration hut, bitten by a snake. Her family tried to cover up the death, the police said, by destroying the hut and quickly burying her body, but the authorities exhumed it and are investigating what happened.”
The practice is legally outlawed in Nepal, yet it persists – particularly in the west, where communities are more isolated.
Following Gauri’s death, the Nepalese government made it a crime to force menstruating women into seclusion. Offenders can be punished with up to three months in jail.
But would such punishment truly break centuries of practice? It’s unclear. Many women choose to continue isolation due to intense social pressure or guilt, as well as ingrained religious beliefs.
The same year of Gauri’s death, a study led by Prabisha Amatya found that 72% of all girls in Nepal practice Chaupadi. Many report that during isolation, they experience loneliness, difficulty sleeping, physical abuse, and snake bites.
To change this practice requires a fundamental change in Hindu culture – and for that, you need education. Many women in Nepal are illiterate, having little opportunity to go to school, which forces them into a cycle of dependence and poverty. As Gettleman described, “In these villages, women are the workhorses. I saw one middle-aged woman shuffle into a market carrying what must have been 200 pounds of apples on her back, in boxes tied by ropes around her chest.”
Such change is happening, albeit slowly. It is also happening in other parts of the world. A lot of change is thanks to the aid workers and educational efforts, funded by Western-based organizations and women’s rights groups, as well as increased media attention on the practice. Yet greater still, the movement has been led by young girls – who educate their fellow villagers thanks to Internet access and better science curriculums. As a result, people are slowly shifting sheds closer to the homes, and some have started to let women live inside the home — still isolated in a room — during their periods. Some norms have even changed to allow girls to attend school while on their periods.
As Gauri’s father-in-law stated, his wife now sleeps in the main house during her period. “And you know what?” He said. “Nothing bad has happened. All these years, we’ve been fooled into believing a false superstition.”
This episode is dedicated to all girls who have died of this and similar practices, and to the young girls working to ensure it never happens again.