The Red Huts of Nepal
The safety risk of Nepalese women forced to live outside their family homes during menstruation.
When a girl comes of age in Nepal, her introduction to womanhood is marked by a Hindu tradition called ‘chaupadi.’ Derived from two Hindu words, chau meaning menstruation and padi meaning women, the tradition has been practiced for centuries.
The practice of chaupadi requires that a woman be segregated from her family and community for a period of up to 11 days. For this duration of time, she is banished from spheres of normal daily life and is exiled to a “goth,” which is a small space made of bamboo, straw, wood, mud and cow feces. Other shelters considered permissible for the practice include huts, cowsheds, barns or caves. All of these areas are far from the home, and most commonly small in size, windowless and without ventilation.
Chaupadi is a religious practice which stems from a Hindu tradition that considers the body to be religiously impure during menstruation and following childbirth. Premised in a fear that menstruating women will bring misfortune upon their families, and aggravate the gods, the practice of chaupadi restricts women from entering or coming near the home or the temple while menstruating.
Accordingly, for the duration of her cycle, a woman is considered impure and treated as untouchable. For this time, a woman is segregated from the community until she is deemed “clean.” Menstruating women are also forbidden from: touching others, using public water sources, drinking milk (for fear that the cow will stop producing) and participating in communal cultural and religious festivals.
The tradition of chaupadi is highly controversial, and has been deemed a form of gender violence. The most common criticism, however, refers to the great security threat the practice poses to women who are left vulnerable to the wilderness once exiled to their goths. This extended isolation in a goth has been the cause of many deaths. Such deaths are attributed to wild animal attacks, snakebites, various diseases, rape, mental illness, hypothermia and pneumonia. While exact statistics are unavailable, exposure while observing chaupadi is responsible for a number of deaths each year.
Additionally, because girls and women are restricted from interacting with men and boys, menstruating girls are forbidden from attending school, and therefore miss up to a week of school each month.
Regulation of Chaupadi
In 2005, Nepal’s supreme court banned the practice of chaupadi.
In accordance with this legal ban, many rural communities have banned the practice becoming these “chaupadi-free zones.” However, despite this movement, the tradition remains prevalent in the hill areas of the mid-Western region of Nepal. In fact, many believe that the designation of a “chaupadi free zone” is largely superficial, and simply provides for a milder practice of the tradition, wherein menstruating girls and women are banished to a separate area within the construct of the home.
When a woman living in a community that practices chaupadi chooses not to partake in the tradition, they are often times ostracized from the community and are blamed for any and all negative circumstances faced by the community including sudden deaths, illnesses, animal attacks, water shortages and/or crop failures that occur. This is premised on the basis that in choosing to forgo the tradition, these women have contaminated their surroundings.
This fear of contamination and isolation from the community leads to a sense of shame. This sense of shame is heightened by a widespread teaching which states that women who fail to observe chaupadi will be punished by their god, Debti.
Such realities make the complete elimination of chaupadi unlikely.
The Failure to Consider Chaupadi from a Cultural Perspective
While criticizing this tradition from a women’s right perspective is simple, seeing the cultural argument for the continuation of such a practice is more challenging. However, in order to appreciate why women continue to subject themselves to this tradition, it is important to consider the cultural perspective which supports chaupadi, and its premise of banishing women during their menstrual cycle.
In many rural communities, traditions such as chaupadi lie at the root of cultural and religious identity. However depriving these women of the ability to practice the tradition that is promoted as a primary piece of their Hindu identity, can deny that woman of her stronghold in the community.
Until we address the basic inequalities of such practices and identify alternative means for women to relate to their culture and practice their faith, it will be difficult to convince women that the threat of and inequalities perpetuated by chaupadi outweigh their desire to feel like a participating member of their communities.
This will require a movement from within Hindu communities that focuses upon chaupadi awareness, and provides women with alternative means of connecting to her culture and community.
Outcry from Within? Chaupadi Awareness
Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu is host to much anti-chaupadi activism, where many Hindu spiritual leaders and women’s rights groups have denounced the practice. This internal outcry has led to chaupadi awareness clinics in classrooms across Nepal, which challenge women to conceptualize chaupadi, encouraging women to reject this accepted norm.
However, because much of the support for chaupadi comes from the older generation, it is most important to educate young women about the dangers of the practice and encourage them to abandon it. Young teachers who do not support the tradition have begun teaching chaupadi awareness classes, encouraging youth to consider the custom from an alternate perspective.
With such internal debate about the practice, advancements in either phasing out the custom or modernizing it (and decreasing the risks involved while maintaining the religious tradition) are taking place. However, despite such steps towards progress, there remains much need for chaupadi awareness and education in rural Nepal.