On Monday, February 4, 2019, a 21-year-old woman died from suffocation in one of Nepal’s infamous “menstruation huts.” Attempting to keep herself warm on a cold Himalayan night, Parbati Bogati lit a fire inside the house, but died from smoke-inhalation. Her body was found by her mother-in-law the next day.
Lala Bahadur Dhami, head of police in the Doti district, said that Bogati spent the night in a windowless, desolate hut because the communal menstruation hut was too crowded. “It appears she died of suffocation after the fire. We will know more after the autopsy report is made public,” Dhami said.
Three other women have died inside these menstruation huts in Nepal, this month.
The chhaupadi system
The ‘chhaupadi goth’ system dictates that menstruating women must be exiled during the days they menstruate. Derived from Nepali words meaning “someone who bears an impunity,” this superstition is rooted in Hindu belief that menstruating women are impure and a source of bad luck to the family, harvest, and cattle.
The chhaupadi tradition is practiced in Nepal where menstruating women are essentially banned from participating in society until their period stops. The New York Times reports that these women are not allowed to stay at their own home, use public water sources, touch food or utensils or enter temples. Al Jazeera says that sometimes Nepali women who are menstruating aren’t allowed to look at themselves in the mirror. Young girls are banned from attending school, as well.
Adhering to the opinion that menstruating women are a source of pollution or contamination, society banishes these women to tiny, unsafe, and isolated structures called ‘menstruation huts’, which are akin to sheds. In these tight spaces, women are exposed to a number of health and safety risks like animal attacks, extreme cold, smoke-inhalation, and sexual assault by predatory men.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of State found that 19% of all Nepali women between the ages of 15 and 49 practiced chhaupadi. This statistic worsened in the country’s hilly regions where 50% of women engaged in the practice.
Banning of menstrual huts
Nepal’s Supreme Court banned this practice in 2005, following which, in 2017, Nepali legislators criminalised the forced exclusion of menstruating women with a punishment of three months in jail or $30 (just over Rs 2,000 today) fine. The Nepali government has also warned families about discontinuing state support like food allowances if they engage in chhaupadi.
Apsara Neupane, then-mayor of the Chandannath municipality, said, “Having a strong law is important but reforming social customs may take more time… In any case, I am glad to see that there has been a gradual change in how people perceive the Chhaupadi practice.”
However, like Neupane predicted, these ingrained social beliefs are hard to break. Bogati is already the fourth victim this year. In January 2019, Amba Bohara and her two sons, Suresh and Ramit, died in a menstruating hut from suffocation after lighting a fire in closed confinement to warm themselves.
The Boharas’ tragic death provoked some villagers to destroy chhaupadi sheds in their area. However, the stigma around menstruation is deeply ingrained in South Asian culture. Nepali lawmaker Ganga Chaudhary told The Guardian, “We have realised that legal provisions [alone] are not enough to end such practices. We need to focus on awareness and educating women”.
Menstruation is a South Asian taboo—even in India
This stigma around menstruation is not confined to Nepal—India suffers from it, as well. In 2017, a 12-year-old Indian child in Tamil Nadu died in a cyclone after she was exiled to an outhouse because she was menstruating. Local Police Chief Ganesh Moorthy said, “When a girl comes of age, her family asks her to stay separately in a hut for some time.”
Modern Diplomacy found that less than 16% of Indian women and 20% of Pakistani do not use hygiene products like pads and tampons because they are unable to afford it or are embarrassed to buy them. So, they resort to sand, wood shavings, and cloth pieces that increase their risk of contracting infections like bacterial vaginosis. The battle over menstruating women’s entry into Sabarimala temple is another display of India’s deeprooted stigma. 23% of Indian girls stop attending school when they start menstruating, as well.
Stemming from the lack of education, dialogue, and attention to women’s health, south Asian women in India, Nepal, Pakistan and more are unaware of menstruation until they start their first cycle. Rabina Budhathoki tells Al Jazeera, “I never knew menstruation was about bleeding, so when I started I got very scared. There was no one to help me…”
Stemming from a lack of education, dialogue, and attention to women’s health, south Asian women in countries like India, Nepal, and Pakistan are unaware of menstruation until they start their first cycle. Rabina Budhathoki tellsAl Jazeera, “I never knew menstruation was about bleeding, so when I started I got very scared. There was no one to help me…”
Other than banning and criminalising methods of discrimination like chhaupadi, south Asian countries can employ a number of creative solutions to combat the taboo that menstruation carries like increasing the functional toilet facilities, instituting women’s health education and sexual education programmes in all schools, and abolishing tax on sanitary products like pads, a measure adopted by India’s GST Council did in 2018.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius