When your period means you have to live in a shed

Image: WaterAid/Poulomi Basu

Journalist Rose George reports on her visit to WaterAid Nepal, where she saw the impact of menstrual taboos on women and girls.

For Radha dinner is served at seven. She crouches down behind a shed, a good distance from her house, then waits.

She knows what the menu will be: boiled rice, the same as yesterday and the day before. She knows that it will be her little sister who serves it, throwing the rice onto her plate from a height, the way you would feed a dog.

In Jamu, Radha's village in western Nepal, her status is lower than a dog's, because she is menstruating.

She is only 16, yet, for the length of her period, Radha can't enter her house or eat anything but boiled rice. She can't touch other women – not even her grandmother or sister – because her touch will pollute them. If she touches a man or a boy, he will start shivering and sicken.

Radha Bishwa Karma, 16, standing outside the chhaupadi hut at night.
Radha stands outside the chhaupadi hut where she sleeps during her period.
Image: WaterAid/Poulomi Basu

If she eats butter or buffalo milk, the buffalo will sicken too and stop milking. If she enters a temple or worships at all, her gods will be furious and take their revenge, by sending snakes or some other calamity.

Here, menstruation is dirty, and a menstruating girl is a powerful, polluting thing. A thing to be feared and shunned.

After dinner, Radha prepares for bed. Darkness falls fast in Jamu and without mains electricity the villagers follow old rhythms and sleep with the dark.

Radha's parents are both migrant workers in India, so she lives with her grandmother. Their house has a solar-powered light, as does the one opposite, where I'm staying with my travelling companions: the Communications and Gender Officer for WaterAid Nepal and our photographer.

The light is no use to Radha this week, because her bed is elsewhere. She leads me over the thoroughfare of pebbles and rocks that passes for a road, suitable only for motorcycles and walkers. Cars and buses must stop at the river, a four-hour walk away.

We walk up a steep hill, through long snake grass, to a small lean-to structure. It looks like an animal shed, but it is smaller and meaner. This is the shed where the village's menstruating women and girls sleep.

In the winter, Radha sleeps on the tiny enclosed ground floor, no bigger than a crawl space. The summer accommodation is an earthen floor on a platform above, four-foot square. Except for a grass roof, it is open to the elements.

There is not space even for one person to lie down, but tonight there will be three. Radha's relative Jamuna is also menstruating, and she'll be sleeping here along with her one-year old son.

Still, Radha appreciates the company, as another woman is some protection against drunken men who conveniently forget about untouchability when it comes to rape.

Although the stigma keeps women silent, rapes of women sleeping in these sheds are common enough to appear as occasional items in newspapers in faraway Kathmandu, and common enough for women to look down when they are mentioned. Also common are snake attacks. (I see three snakes there in three days.)

Sometimes there are four or five women in the shed, an unthinkable number. If the shed is that full, then girls and women must find other options.

Up the field, I watch with disbelief as a 14-year-old girl shows me her sleeping arrangements for the night: the bare earth outside her family's house, with only a mosquito net for protection. It's only the third time she has had her period and already she is resigned. What can she do?

In the local dialect Radha, her relative and the 14-year-old girl are 'chhau' (sometimes 'chau'). Originally meaning 'menstruation' in the Rawte dialect of Achham, it has come to mean 'untouchable menstruating woman'. The system of keeping girls and women apart is known as 'chhaupadi' ('padi' means 'woman').

Menstrual taboos and restrictions are still practised in dozens of countries across Asia and Africa. In neighbouring India, I have met girls who told me seriously that their nail polish went rotten if they applied it during their period, and that they were forbidden from touching pickles.

But chhaupadi is one of the most severe and damaging examples. In 2005, Nepal's Supreme Court declared it illegal. Three years later, the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare issued guidelines meant to eradicate the practice. But western Nepal is remote both geographically and legislatively, and enforcement is rare.

A 2010 survey in the mid- and far-western regions found that 19 per cent of women had been forced to live in chhaupadi sheds, but this figure rose to 52 per cent in the mid-western mountain areas and 50 per cent in the far-western hills.

Radha Bishwa Karma, 16, behind the toilet where she is served food (boiled rice only) during chaupadi, Surkhet district, Nepal, 2013.
Radha Bishwa Karma serving food behind the toilet.
Image: WaterAid/Poulomi Basu

We are in the mid-west, but not in mountain country where the practice is more endemic, so I wasn't sure of finding chhaupadi sheds.

The first village we encounter is Narci, an hour's walk after the road runs out. There is a chhaupadi shed outside every house. Some contain possessions: a comb stuck in the thatch or a bottle of red nail polish. Some have schoolbooks.

In Narci, a group of women gather to talk, sitting at a safe distance on the steps outside a house, as one, Nandakala, is menstruating and she doesn’t dare come closer. Her chhaupadi shed is nearby.

She says, along with all the other women, that chhaupadi is necessary. If menstruating women don't observe the taboos, bad things happen. A buffalo could climb a tree. Men would start trembling and fall ill. Snakes will be brought by the sin.

A woman holding a small scythe gets animated at this: "Yes, it’s true. A big snake came into my house." In this group setting, none of them protest. They accept their situation, even the lack of sanitary pads. "We don’t even wear underwear. What do you expect? We are jungle people." Instead, they let the blood flow, or make a sort of loincloth from old saris that they tie between their legs.

As for washing and drying the cloths, that must be done in secret, if at all. It is discreet, but also dangerous: unless menstrual cloths are properly washed and dried in sunlight, they can be a health hazard.

The women shrug. It is our tradition, they say. It's what our parents and grandparents did, so it's what we do. But away from the group, as she has her picture taken in her miserable chhaupadi shed, Nandakala is more frank.

"Of course I hate it," she tells the photographer. In the winter it's cold. In the summer it's hot. The restrictions are stifling and unfair.

Why should the gods punish us? Why should women be punished? But what the hell can we do?

Nandakala, 42 years, Narsi Village..“I don’t like being here. I do not want to have to do this. I think it is a punishment from God”
Nandakala, 42 says, “I don’t like being here. I do not want to have to do this. I think it is a punishment from God.”
Image: WaterAid/Poulomi Basu

On the four-hour road trip from Nepalgunj, the location of the nearest airport, we encountered signs in Nepali, declaring villages to be ODF (open-defecation-free), meaning that they now have adequate toilets.

But many do not: 15 million people in Nepal – about half the population – have no toilet. Just under 8,000 Nepali children still die every year from water- and sanitation-related diseases (most from diarrhoea), according to WaterAid. Those deaths are usually caused by faecal particles getting into food or water, and would be easily prevented by decent toilets, clean water and good hygiene.

On paper, Nepal's commitments to sanitation are impressive: the government plans to ensure 53 per cent sanitation coverage nationwide by 2015, rising from 43 per cent in 2009.

But its efforts to reduce menstrual taboos and chhaupadi are less admirable. Despite the Supreme Court’s judgement, menstrual taboos are so far from being eradicated in Nepal that they have their own national holiday.

In early September in Nepal, Hindus – who make up 81 per cent of the country’s 30.5 million people – celebrate Rishi Panchami, a festival that commemorates a woman who was reborn as a prostitute because she didn’t follow menstrual restrictions.

It is a women's holiday, and so Nepal's government gives all women a day off work. This is not to recognise the work done by women, but to give them the time to perform rituals that will atone for any sins they may have committed while menstruating in the previous year. (Girls who have not begun menstruating and women who have ceased to menstruate are exempt.)

At 3am we find thousands of women queuing up at Pashupatinath temple, Kathmandu's grandest, ready to atone. They are not ignorant about the nature of the rituals, as I crassly expected them to be, nor is this something done by rote.

"We may have touched a man by mistake," they say, queuing so tightly that the line looks like a mile-long embrace. "We have to do this because our ancestors did."

Even the female police officers standing nearby see nothing wrong with it. "I can’t do the rituals this year because I'm on duty," says one, holding a cup of warm tea in the cold morning darkness, "so next year I’ll do double."

She is serious, and so are the five women we find at a river's edge nearby, ritually washing themselves 365 times.

Dressed in red petticoats, a sacred thread around their waists, they spend hours performing the ritual washing of their private parts, belly button, elbows, armpits, heart and head, while men on the far river bank suddenly find the need to do an hour's calisthenics right in front of these near-naked women.

The women finally cleanse their hair by smearing it with fresh buffalo dung, before washing it with cow urine and milk. I ask the eldest woman whether she believes she has sinned.

"Well if I didn't, I wouldn’t have done all this, would I?"