Tag Archives: accham

Blood on our hands

During her menstrual days,Swomen spend four days in a shed, outcast from the main household

On Thursday, 19-year-old Tulasi Shahi died of snake bites. Almost seven months earlier, 15-year-old Roshani Tiruwa suffocated to death. And just a month before that, it was 26-year-old Dambara Upadhyay. All of them died under the same circumstance — they succumbed to the so-called Hindu tradition in Nepal that banishes women during menstruation.  

In Hinduism, avatars of some goddesses are seen as manifestation of power. And every time when a woman is mistreated, the conflicted views of mythology versus reality becomes a part of public discourse — while they are worshiped as divine figures, since the ancient times its believers have however relegated women from that pedestal, positioning them as “impure” when nature takes it course every month. And generation after generation, the self-proclaimed custodians of the religion have been using fear as a medium to impose these “traditions” at the cost of women’s lives.

“Our elders think the gods will be angry,” Sunita BK told me while reporting on the issue that plagues hundreds of women in different pockets of Nepal. “The family will have to bear the consequences if we stay in the house during menstruation. We can’t speak against them.”

While many families feared the wrath of the divine deity, which may or may not exist, for many women in villages like Mangalsen, it’s the power of the family patriarchs and such practices that govern their existence.

On a balmy January afternoon in the far-western district of Accham, the 19-year-old spoke of frigid winter nights she had spent in the mud shed since her early teens, adhering to the practice locally known as chaupadi. The tin-thatched structure had paper cardboard that carpeted the dusty floor, no windows for ventilation, and a wooden door without proper locks. It wasn’t even big enough for a five-feet woman to stretch.

The shed is a crammed space with no ventilation or windows. Reports of deaths due to suffocation during chaupadi have surfaced over the past years

Sunita said her mother and mother-in-law followed the same tradition, and the latter said her mother told that it was a part of every woman’s monthly routine, with the elderly from the family ensuring that the religious sanctimony is not broken. And in order to protect something that their dead ancestors passed, people tend to entirely ignore the living, leaving women to die under inhumane conditions — in any religion, it would constitute sinful.

When I visited Accham, almost a full-day drive from the closest airport in Dhangadi, in 2014,  death of 15-year-old Sharmila Bhul from the previous year still lingered in people’s memories. She lived 30 minutes away from Sunita’s village, and had mysteriously died in the shed. She was expelled from the house during her period. It wasn’t a shocking news for many. It was a sorrowful story, but not shocking. It was more or less an ill fate that could have happened to anyone.

It is noteworthy that blinded by faith, people tend to normalize such events, selectively ignoring the injustices faced by women in their community, becoming equally complicit in a criminal behavior disguised in the form of tradition.

It’s been 12 years since Nepal’s Supreme Court outlawed chaupadi. During the past decade, the country has witnessed seasons of political and social changes. Women’s empowerment, along with other catch phrases that are used as yardsticks to measure social progress, have become a part of the local lexicon, even in villages of districts as far as Accham. Nepal is hailed for reducing maternal mortality, improving women’s access to finance, and securing political representation, as female leaders hold the positions that once were held by key male players only. They have been elected as the chief justice, speaker of the house, and also the country’s first female president.

And while these developments paint a rosy picture of a poor but progressive country, the society still hasn’t forgotten to deem women “impure” during menstruation. However, it should be noted that this is not only rural Nepal’s problem. Archaic traditions as such are silently practiced in urban pockets like the capital, Kathmandu. In my neighborhood, men from the so-called upper caste Brahmin family still don’t touch women while they bleed, and even in my Newari household, women don’t enter the kitchen or the worship room during menstruation. The only difference is that women die in villages, but in cities we kill their dignity by giving them an “untouchable” status.

While the problem exists, it is important that we look forward seeking solutions. Yes, there have been policy interventions, but that doesn’t guarantee a social transformation. And this is where the members of the community should step forward. In villages like Mangalsen, I met men like Kamal Rawal, a 22-year-old journalist who has taken a stand against the practise, starting from his household. In Ridikot, the village where Sharmila died, locals are challenging this culture, destroying one shed at a time. Rights organizations have also been vocal in raising awareness.

But when I asked Sunita about all of this — the political representation, the progressive attitude, including her neighboring village — she smiled at first, and then shrugged. The teenager, and a mother of a child, said all of that is so distant from her everyday life. They mean little to her as long as she has to brave the weather, wild animals and worry about perverted men barging in the sheds at night, and spend five days in the shed every month during her menstrual cycle.

“I hope the situation will change soon,” she said.

But the underlying question is: How soon will it change?

One after another, women are dying in similar situations. And from where Nepal stands today, even one death is too many. Every death is equally shocking because it’s untimely, unnatural — it can be passed as murder — and something that is undoubtedly preventable. And let’s not wait until another death, or series of stories splashed across international media outlets to enrage us about what’s happening in our backyards.

It’s now beyond time for family patriarchs, community crusaders, and political leaders to shun this practice and shatter the sheds in every corner of the country. For centuries, society has banished women for bleeding, but its members should now collectively accept that they are to blame for each death — they are the ones with blood on their hands.

 

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In Accham

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“We have to cross several hills like these,” said my driver Ranjit as we drove from Dadeldhura to Accham in far-west Nepal. “It will take us about six hours.”

Those mighty green hills, overlapping one another, with the snow-capped Appi Saipal range towering above them, would suit perfectly for an artist’s canvas; flying over them, if no turbulence, is always a joyride; but driving through the narrow, serpentine strips literally carved cutting those hills, is dizzying.

“This is where a bus plunged recently,” Ranjit said. I rolled down the window and looked – I couldn’t see anything but a steep hill rising from hundreds of feet below.

Just getting to that point had been exhausting. I had started my journey the previous day. The flight from Kathmandu to Dhangadi — the longest domestic flight — was delayed, and so I landed in the far-west plains as the sun was ready to settle down.

Ranjit was there to pick me, and he recommended we drive to Dadeldhura, a hilly town that would be our stopover for the night. During the four-hour drive, the vehicle broke down three times – the first time, it was closer to Dhangadi and we managed to get a mechanic. The other two times, it was in the middle of the highway – thanks to the friendly truck drivers who helped us out.

Driving through sections of the snow-covered Bhim Dutta Highway in pitch dark, we finally reached the destination for that night. I checked into a hotel and tried to make myself cosy in a cold room – I put on three layers of clothing plus my socks and hat and covered myself with three blankets for the night. I went to sleep with no expectation of what this cold town would look like.

In the morning, when I opened the curtain, it was a magnificent view. With only an hour to spare, I went to have a close look at the Himalayas. Walking through the bazaar, I made my way to Toofan Danda (Windy Hill) and captured the sight in my camera before starting that long drive to Accham.

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During the six-hour journey, we passed through Doti district – small settlements scattered throughout the highway where cattle grazed freely and children played fearless of the speeding vehicles. Life in these settlements reflects rural Nepal, a stark contrast to the progressive pockets that tends to define modern Nepal.

As you enter Accham district, a typical big concrete gate welcomes you. One of the first boards I noticed was about safer practises to prevent HIV. The pictorial illustrations highlighted safer sex, discouraged sharing needles and also encouraged people to get tested.

Accham is one of the districts with the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the country. With a majority of Acchami men leaving to India for employment, they have unknowingly brought home the virus that has largely been transmitted to the women, and also children, in the district.

During my stay, I talked to some men who said they got the virus from India, but had “no idea how they got it.” I also talked to women who told me they got the virus from their husbands. But amid a crisis, which they term as the “Bombay Disease”— because most of the men go to Bombay for work and bring the disease— people have started to come out and speak about it. I met a woman who was infected by her husband and now passionately advocates about HIV/AIDS – she thinks it’s important to spread the message and encourage people to get tested. Early detection and being on medication, she said, will help them live “an easy life.”

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For most Acchamis, everyday life is not easy. With an average household income of Rs 6,125, limited employment opportunities and infrastructural development, challenges are apparent. As soon as you reach Sanfebagar, one of the emerging marketplaces in the district, you get the sense. A stretch of rickety tin-built shops cluster the area serving as a transit point for buses departing to Dhangadi, Kathmandu and the neighboring district of Bajura. Apart from that, there is nothing much to this area until you reach Airport Bazaar, where a thriving marketplace exists, even better than the market in Mangalsen [pic below].

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Twelve years ago, after a Maoist attack, this place was one of the casualties of war. A friend who had visited the place during the conflict time told me about the devastation. But now, though the airport remains dysfunctional, this small marketplace is on a slow road to recovery. People are making investments, taking a risk and starting small-scale businesses.

Here I met people like Lalit Kunwar and Shankar Bhul who have taken loans from the cooperatives and microfinance institutions that they’re members of. With limited banking services in the district, a majority of Acchamis have turned into cooperatives and microfinance institutions that have allowed them to save and also borrow money at lower interest rates. With 202 cooperatives and three microfinance institutions, locals said they have a better access to finance – people have been prompted to make small investments and in this process, women are also coming forward, taking control of their financial ownership.

But while women are actively taking a lead, it’s hard to ignore the issues that are plaguing them – the tradition of Chaupadi is largely prevalent, pushing women into a time machine forcing them to follow the rules of the past.

In the district headquarter of Mangalsen, I met some women who still practise Chapudai, where they spend five to seven days of their menstrual period in a shed, isolated from the main household. Most of them were young, going to school, but said they couldn’t question their traditional beliefs and speak against them. These women still see themselves as “impure” during menstruation, a belief that has been ingrained and passed on from generations.

The district headquarter of Mangalsen, though it serves as a center of commerce and the seat of government offices, looks primeval compared to the other remote places I’ve visited: A majority of houses are built from mud, stone or tin, electricity is scarce and the slushy streets is an inconvenience for someone from the city, though Kathmandu’s streets are pretty similar at the moment. However, there is a black-topped road that links Mangalsen to the rest of Nepal, which locals said have played an instrumental role in the district’s development.

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Also, one of the notable progresses in Accham is the resurgence of its public hospital in Bayalpata, a small settlement in between Sanfebagar and Mangalsen. In a public-private partnership with the Government of Nepal, Nyaya Health, a local NGO, has revived the once dilapidated hospital. The hospital that serves about 52,000 patients yearly looks like a miniature of a private hospital in Kathmandu with first-class, free service to the people of Accham. No wonder, the medical facility is a darling of many Acchamis today and has been declared Nepal’s best hospital for 2013.

During my four days in Accham, it was difficult not to think how this place and the people have actually moved past the death and destruction during the decade-long conflict that stalled any development. During a short span of time, a mere seven years since the war ended in 2006, the peace dividend has seemed to paid off quite well for places like Accham, which were literally cut off from rest of the country.

In these seven years, Nepal has been politically unstable, and quickly scanning from what we’ve achieved, it looks like the country hasn’t really gained a lot. But if we dig into Nepal’s rural pockets that were ravaged by the conflict, it really gives a little bit of hope and optimism. The progress being made on a community level and the people’s enthusiasm to drive their district’s development is hard to ignore – just like that drive up to Mangalsen.

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When the dense fog that blocked the view up to Mangalsen suddenly vanished, the mist of uncertainty cleared into a sunny spell. Standing up the hill, I looked down – the hills below looked beautiful despite the fact they were covered in a thick blanket of clouds. In the next hour, as I stood still, admiring the beauty, the clouds cleared, giving a picture-perfect view of the valley.

In these seven years, this place where I was then standing, I thought, has been cleared of the fog. However the clouds still linger, but I’m sure they’ll pass, giving a way for the sun to shine.

STORIES FROM ACCHAM [Will post stories as they’re published]

Bridging the financial gap [Republica The Week]

Crowdfunding platform Nyaya helps raises cash for health care for Nepal’s poor [South China Morning Post]

Q&A: Mark Arnoldy, Executive Director, Nyaya Health [Republica The Week]

Nepali women still plagued by archaic practice of imprisonment during menstruation [South China Morning Post]

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