A woman’s “shame”: Menstruation traditions in rural Nepal still alive
By Chloe Strahan.
When Sita Rai first got her period, she was terribly sad.
Her mother had not prepared her for the natural changes that would occur in her adolescent body.
Sita had only heard rumours from older female friends about menstruation.
“When I first got my period, I didn’t know how to hide,” said Ms Rai, who grew up in the rural town of Solukhumbu in eastern Nepal.
“I was wearing lungi [traditional Nepali sarong], and I didn’t have underwear. I didn’t have enough clothes, so I had to put on more lungi over the top. It was very hard.”
Sita never told her mother when she got her first period.
Throughout Nepal, women are isolated from their communities during menstruation.
The tradition originates from the Hindu practice Chhaupadi – followed in some rural areas of western Nepal – a religious belief that brands women as untouchable and impure while menstruating and after child birth.
Families that follow a strict interpretation of Chhaupadi banish their women to cowsheds outside of the home for five days, according to the United Nations 2010 field report.
Here, these women are removed from all normal activities of daily life. They do not change their clothes, and sanitary items do not exist.
But the rules surrounding the isolation of menstruating women differ greatly depending on the caste of a family.
Sita, who now works as a trekking guide for Three Sisters Trekking company in Pokhara, is from a middle-class caste of Rai.
She says that Rai women are not banished from the home, but they are still not allowed to go to temples to pray.
She says the practice of Chhaupadi, which is not practised in her village, can be cruel.
“When [these women] first get a period, they have to hide for a week. They are not allowed to see their father or brothers face,” Ms Rai said.
“After that, they are not allowed in the kitchen. They have separate plates, pots. [They] can’t touch other people, plants, cows or fruits, for fear of making them ‘impure.’
“I don’t know why they hide like that, I don’t think it’s human.”
Pyare Gurung is a member of the mothers group in Lwang, a village 22km from the major city of Pokhara. In her village, the Gurung caste is also middle class.
“According to the Hindu religion, priests and Sanskrit, you cannot go to the temple. When you get a period, that is not clean,” Ms Gurung said.
“If we go to temple we will feel bad.”
In Lwang, the traditions are less strict. Women are not confined to small dark rooms.
The practice of Chhaupadi can be life threatening. In 2010, an 11-year-old girl died from dehydration and diarrhoea, after her parents refused to take her to hospital during her period. They did not want to touch her.
In 2005 the Supreme Court of Nepal banned the practice of Chhaupadi, but the practice continues in some rural villages in western Nepal.
Luckily for Sita Rai, the main problem is sanitation and hygiene, skills she has learnt through her training with her trekking company. Sita wishes to return to Solukhumbu to teach women about cleanliness and sanitary items.
“Back home women don’t know how to stay clean. I would like to do that kind of thing, or teach the mother to teach their daughters,” Ms Rai said.
“I had that problem, my mother didn’t tell me anything. Your mother should tell you.”[Interview with Pyare Gurung translated by English/Nepali translator. Feature photo by Chloe Strahan.]