On July 7, 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. 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 its 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.
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 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 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 to seek 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 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 disconnected 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.