Nepal has taken another major step in protecting the rights of women by passing a bill that will make it illegal to “exile” women during their periods. According to legislator Krishna Bhakta Pokhel, who helped draft the bill, anyone found practicing Chhauopad, the act of forcing menstruating women to leave their homes and take shelter in makeshift huts or cattle sheds until their periods end, may face up to 3 months in jail or a fine of 3,000 Nepalese rupees (the equivalent of $29 US).
Meanwhile, Gauri Kumari Oli, a female lawmaker from the Doti district, told the Associated Press that she doubts that the threat of punishment will deter people from following the custom if they believe women are impure during this time of the month. She also stressed the need for the government to educate women about maintaining better hygiene.
Although Chhaupadi was actually criminalized by the Nepal’s Supreme Court in 2005, it has remained in practice, severely jeopardizing the lives of thousands of women in this (primarily) in grave danger. This is especially true for those living in the western hill region.
Not only do they often face infections from being forced into unclean conditions, women isolated from their homes and villages are often attacked by wild animals including snakes, as well either freezing to death (since they may only use thin burlap mats and not blankets) in very cold weather.
Others often succumb to asphyxiation from carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of lighting small fires in poorly ventilated structures. While many become the victims of rape.
According to custom, girls are confined for 10-11 days during their menarche, and then 4-7 days each month thereafter. During that time they are also banned from entering their own homes or courtyards, touching men (lest he become sick);, going to school (for fear of angering Saraswati, the goddess of education) and even performing normal daily functions including bathing. In addition, women who are menstruating are forbidden to eat meat, milk, butter, yogurt, for fear that the cow who gave the milk will become dry. Other nutritious foods are also forbidden lest they “permanently contaminate them.” This includes the belief that if a menstruating woman touches a fruit tree it will cease to bear fruit. As a result, females often suffer from malnutrition and dehydration during their confinement.
Many women victimized by Chhaupadi also tend to suffer from deep-seeded psychological problems as a direct result of their imposed exile, a point emphasized last year by Monica Upahyay, communication and partnership office of UN Women in Nepal. Upahyay condemned the practice for “filling the country’s female population with feelings of shame, humiliation, guilt, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression.
While, the new law will not become effective until a year from now, it is a major step forward for women’s rights in the Himalayan country, which has also passed laws outlawing other deeply ingrained customs against women including slavery, acid attacks and even the dowry system in which a woman’s family must secure a husband for her by paying the prospective groom and his family prior to marriage.