Nepal’s Grim Superstition, Known to Lead to a Death by Shame
Posted June 19, 2018 8:26 p.m. EDT
Updated June 19, 2018 8:32 p.m. EDT
TURMAKHAND, Nepal — Not long ago, in rural western Nepal, Gauri Kumari Bayak was the spark of her village. Her strong voice echoed across the fields as she husked corn. When she walked down the road at a brisk clip, off to lead classes on birth control, many admired her self-confidence.
But last January, Bayak’s lifeless body was carried up the hill, a stream of mourners bawling behind her. Her remains were burned, her dresses given away. The little hut where she was pressured to sequester herself during her menstrual period — and where she died — was smashed apart, erasing the last mark of another young life lost to a deadly superstition.
“I still can’t believe she’s not alive,” said Dambar Budha, her father-in-law, full of regret, sitting on a rock, staring off into the hills.
In this corner of Nepal, deep in the Himalayas, women are banished from their homes every month when they get their period. They are considered polluted, even toxic, and an oppressive regime has evolved around this taboo, including the construction of a separate hut for menstruating women to sleep in. Some of the spaces are as tiny as a closet, walls made of mud or rock, basically menstruation foxholes. Bayak died from smoke inhalation in hers as she tried to keep warm by a small fire in the bitter Himalayan winter.
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, another young woman was found dead in a menstruation 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 called chhaupadi (pronounced CHOW-pa-dee), from Nepali words that mean someone who bears an impurity — and it has been going on for hundreds of years. But now, the Nepali government and advocates for women are trying to end it. Starting in August, for the first time, it will be a crime to force a menstruating woman into seclusion, punishable by up to three months in jail, though it’s not clear if that’s going to make a dent in the tradition.
Many women keep doing it, out of intense social pressure or even guilt, and every evening, across these rippled green hills where little wisps of smoke melt into the darkening sky, hundreds of menstruating women and girls trudge out of their houses into chhaupadi huts.
One woman, Mansara Nepali, sheepishly showed me hers. Made of stone, it was no more than 3 feet tall. As Nepali bent herself nearly in half to get in, she thunked her head on the tiny door frame.
“We built this ourselves,” she said, rubbing her forehead. “That’s why it’s not so good.”
Like many other women I met, Nepali, who thought she was around 35, was illiterate. She had never gone to school and seemed embarrassed about her poverty. Her face was deeply grooved, cheeks reddened from laboring outside every day on a windy mountainside. 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.
Another problem that many women in this area have, aid workers said, is a prolapsed uterus, a painful condition in which the uterus slips down and protrudes from the vagina. It can be caused by heavy lifting and difficult births, both common here.
“It’s all part of the suffering and humiliation women have to endure because of harsh traditions,” said Pashupati Kunwar, who runs a small aid group to help women. “Domestic violence is still bad. Child marriage is still high. We are trying to convince people that times are changing, but superstition is still strong.”
The chhaupadi tradition seems especially hard to break. From the earliest age, people here are taught that any contact with a menstruating woman will bring bad luck. Most do not question it.
“If a woman goes inside the family’s home during her period, three things will happen,” explained a farmer named Runcho. “A tiger will come; the house will catch on fire; and the head of the house will get sick.”
Runcho spoke without any doubt or flourish. When asked if he had ever seen a tiger in his village, he smiled and didn’t answer yes or no, but then told a long story about how, maybe 10 years ago, he accidentally brushed up against his daughter when she was menstruating and lost his sight for several days.
“It was a nightmare,” he said.
As he spoke, his teenage niece, who was having her period, was getting ready to crawl into a storage space beneath his house. The sun was setting behind the mountains, a cool wind sweeping in. The storage space was dark, cold, cramped and smelled like wet fur — and it was filled with itchy straw.
“I’m happy to go down there,” said his niece, Devika. “I don’t want my parents to get sick.”
Her uncle watched her closely.
“The only problem,” she added, “is that our mobiles don’t work down there. We need to go outside to check our Facebook updates.”
When I asked Runcho if he would like to sleep in the crawl space, he laughed. “Why should I?” he said. “It’s for women!”
In some villages, menstruating women are sent to cow sheds. Women who just gave birth are also considered polluted, and many remain isolated with their newborns for several days. Two years ago, said Kunwar, the women’s aid worker, a mother left her newborn alone in a shed for just a few minutes to wash her clothes. A jackal skulked in and snatched the baby.
Many religions observe rules around menstruation, and Hinduism places a special emphasis on purity and pollution. Still, scholars are not sure why the menstruation taboo is so strong in western Nepal, where countless villages, across an area comprising hundreds of miles, still practice it.
It may be because this region of Nepal is poor, relatively homogeneous, overwhelmingly Hindu and remote, and the houses tend to be small. (In other Hindu subcultures, menstruating women can be secluded to some degree within their homes.) Some women have to sleep in the huts for an entire week. When it comes to meals, they are not allowed to cook, which several women said was actually a relief. They often sit by themselves in their menstruation huts and wait for family members to slide them plates of food.
They are also not supposed to touch livestock; if a calf or goat strays into their hut, they have to yell for someone else to shoo it out, out of fear the animal will get sick. During the day, the menstruating women work in the fields like everyone else, though they make sure not to come in contact with other villagers; at night, they go to the huts.
“These practices are done in the name of protecting the purity of the community,” said Kathryn March, an anthropologist at Cornell University who has worked extensively in Nepal. “That’s why it’s so hard for individuals to change them.”
But a growing number of people are trying.
Dharma Raj Kadayat is one of the chhaupadi rebels. He grew up in a small mountainside village in western Nepal, a couple hours’ drive from where Bayak died and where women still pound grain with a seesaw-like plank. He then spent nearly 20 years in Kathmandu, Nepal’s relatively cosmopolitan capital.
When he recently came back to take a job as an administrator in a hospital, he said he felt ashamed that his relatives were still practicing chhaupadi.
“It’s so backward,” he said.
A few years ago during a Hindu festival, he stood up in front of the whole village and made a speech about how any woman who does not want to go into a shed when she was menstruating was welcome to stay in his house.
“Are you drunk?” a man yelled out from the crowd.
He said that activists had persuaded many families in his village to destroy their huts. But a few months later, people got scared and rebuilt them all.
It was the death of Tulasi Shahi, an 18-year-old woman bitten by a snake last year while staying in a cow shed, that pushed lawmakers to write the new anti-chhaupadi law, several lawmakers said.
Though menstruating women of all ages sleep in the huts, chhaupadi seems to disproportionately kill the young. Activists said this may be because young women aren’t as savvy about protecting themselves; for example, they might not know which type of snakes are poisonous or how important it is to keep the hut’s door slightly open if there’s a fire burning.
“Our conclusion,” said Rewati Raman Bhandari, a former member of parliament, “was that if we left this up to society to change, it would take hundreds of years.”
Budha, the father-in-law of the woman who died in January, Bayak, now tells as many people who will listen about the chhaupadi dangers.
“But people don’t care,” he said. “I say, ‘My daughter died, yours could, too.’ But then they say, ‘We are sorry but that is our culture.'”
It wasn’t lost on him that Bayak, who the family said was around 20 when she died, was something of a feminist, leading birth control classes and encouraging women to stand up for themselves.
“But even she still followed this tradition,” he said. “The pressure’s too strong. If she hadn’t gone to the hut during her period, she would have felt embarrassed.”
He misses everything about her, he said: the way she read books, her enthusiasm for life, her voice. Bayak moved in with her husband’s family after she married and grew especially close to her in-laws. After she died, it was her guilt-ridden father-in-law who smashed apart the menstruation hut with his own hands.
Since then, he has insisted that his wife sleep 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.”