Chaupadi pratha: tradition or torment?

Chaupadi pratha is a tradition practiced for centuries that banishes females during their menstruation period from the house.  Despite a ban being imposed by the Supreme Court on the chaupadi tradition in 2004, it is a practice that is still heavily widespread in the mid and western regions of Nepal. 

Its history is said to be from religious practices where it was believed to that Gods and Goddesses were angered at women staying in the family house at such a time. According to religious folklore, Indra, the King of Heaven was accused of killing a Brahmin and because of the illicit acts with women that Indra committed during his quest to redeem his sin, for these acts all women were said to be punished through menstruation.

In some cases women are instructed to live in a separate area of the house, however commonly women are forced to live in a mud hut that is completely separate to the house and in some case hundreds of yards away.  Young women growing up are told of horror stories of how if their father’s would become possessed if they stayed in home during their period. Indeed women are forbidden to touch cattle or crops at such a time for fear of harming them, though they are allowed to touch other women. If contact is made with the women then it is said that one must be purified, and washed for example in cow urine. Conditions of the cowsheds are horrific, subjecting women to the cold extremities, and dangerous risk of various infectious diseases. There are often cases of women becoming seriously ill from the cowsheds. The worst case scenarios involve suffering from diarrheal and respiratory diseases and also malnutrition. Whilst in sheds, the women are not able to wash or even comb their hair. In some areas, women are not even taught or aware of the use of sanitary towels and so are forced to bare the ‘’condemned’’ stains on their unwashed clothes. Furthermore girls are restricted from even going to school during such a time.

 Women who have just given birth are also considered to be part of the ‘’untouchables’’ too and so are forced to live in the same conditions. At such a vulnerable stage, the mothers and newborns are significantly compromised and many cases of infant and maternal mortality result.

Nepali Times reported a husband whose wife died as a result of chaupadi, in the area of Achham, Kanchha Chhetri's wife delivered a baby with the help of his relatives and immediately afterwards she ‘‘was whisked away to the chaupadi shed because childbirth had made her "impure".’’ Three tortuous days later, the new born baby had died and his wife, suffering from terrible bleeding had a high fever, yet there was no one there to help her. Kanchha Chhetri said he was only aware of his wife’s sickness on the fifth day; "I defied family pressure to rush her to Nepalganj. By the time we got there over the rough roads, her condition had worsened. She could not be saved."

Though the premise of chaupadi pratha is arguably a religious tradition, the fall out effects of the practice cannot be condoned by any religion or society. The horrific treatment of young girls and women is in fact undoubtedly far from the notions of any tradition or religion.  However, as its roots and custom are sturdily imbedded amidst the older generations, a change in practice would and has been seen as too be too radical and away from the norm. With such topics like puberty, especially with women, it is still often taboo and so to question age old practices is unheard of as to do so would be disrespectful and bring dishonour to the family. That being said Kanchha’s defiance and rejection of chaupadi shows a definite shift of attitudes towards chaupadi from within the community itself.

The psychological effects are just as shocking, as the young women often live in fear as well as physical pain and discomfort. Exposed to the dangers of assault and sexual abuse many women are too afraid to even sleep whilst in the shed at the risk of being attacked by men in the village.  Such acts signify the misogynistic nature of certain regions of Nepal and the constant fight that women face. Forever repressed and even pressurised by their own mothers as well as fathers, it seems to be a downward spiral of uneducation and subjugation of young women by the elders of the village.

For women in these areas their monthly menstruation subjects them to monthly imprisonment.

The United Nations Populations Fund video reports on the backlash women face if they dare to break the tradition, being ostracised from the whole village. What is occurring through this monthly torment is merely a further push of women into the shadows, isolated and without a voice, or at least one that is heard.

However, forms of chaupadi do not exist in Nepal alone.

As ever, gentle steps towards educating the communities of the physical and psychologically detrimental effects need to be made, but not imposed.  Solutions lie in communication with the younger generation, giving them guidance where needed so that they can make the decision whether or not to practise chaupadi, so that essentially women have choice, and this is the choice that will empower them.

Image of chaupadi hut taken from http://www.carenepal.org

Image of women in chaupadi hut taken from http://www.mikeldunham.blogs.com

Comments

Tasnia A

This tradition is quite painful, especially the way the women have to live in such harsh conditions during the time of menstruation and vulnerability . Hygiene, health and safety are my key concerns.

I personally believe its a method of torment for the poor souls, but what do you when its a tradition? how do escape from such valued cultural traditions?

21 September 2011 delete