When Bhagirathi Bajagain, 20, started her period six years ago, her family imposed the traditional Nepali practice of 'Chhaupadi' – forcing her to sleep outside in a small, windowless hut during menstruation.
When I was little, I used to beg my mum not to tell anyone when she’d got her period. I didn’t really understand what menstruation was, but I knew that as soon as she started bleeding, she’d be made to sleep outside the house in a hut on top of the cowshed, and I’d be made to do her chores. Looking back, I think I mostly wanted to escape from doing the housework, but I always wondered how she must feel when she was in the hut. It was so small and uncomfortable. I thought she must be really scared, sleeping there alone in the dark. I couldn’t imagine the same thing happening to me.
I grew up in western Nepal, in a district called Tikapur. I have two brothers – one older, one younger – and I go to college nearby, where I’m studying accounts. I want to get my master's degree and then become a banker. As soon as you step onto the college campus, boys and girls are treated the same. There are almost equal numbers of us in my class.
Unfortunately, it’s not the same in my village. Until recently, everyone believed that periods were dirty and that women who stayed in their houses while menstruating would be cursed and unable to have children or get married. To protect ourselves against this, we would practise ‘Chhaupadi Pratha’ – which means that women and girls of all ages have to sleep outside during their periods; normally in a small wooden hut or shelter.
I was 14 years old when I got my period for the first time. I thought I was bleeding because I must be ill or something, and I felt so frightened that it took me about an hour before I summoned up the courage to tell my mum. She calmed me down and told me that she was the same age when she started her periods, and taught me how to use cotton cloths to absorb the blood. Then she told me I had to start sleeping in the Chhaupadi hut. I didn’t have a choice.
The first night was terrifying. I thought I was going to die out there. The hut was right outside our house, and compared to most of the other huts in the village, I suppose it wasn’t that bad. There was a small bedframe with a mattress, for one thing. But there weren’t any windows, and the door was just an open entrance. I lay awake worrying that somebody was going to come in and hurt me, or imagining snakes slithering over to bite me and kill me in the dark. I just wanted to make it through the night alive. I only managed to fall asleep the next morning when I heard everyone else waking up outside.
During the day, having my period was fine. I would get stomach cramps and feel a bit sleepier than usual, but I was allowed to leave the hut and go to school like normal. It was only when I got home in the evenings that things changed. Nobody in my family could touch me, and I wasn’t allowed to eat dairy products. I had to sit separately during mealtimes, and I couldn’t do my homework because there wasn’t electricity in the hut and it was too dark to read. As soon as the sun started going down, I would start to feel anxious. I dreaded everything about that place.
I was suffering a lot, but I didn’t fight back at the start because I didn’t know there was an alternative. Sometimes my friends and I would have our periods at the same time, so we’d sleep in each other’s huts for company. We all accepted that this was just the way things were. But one night when I was alone, it rained really heavily. I sat on my bed in the dark, scared that insects and snakes were going to come inside and wondering why I was being treated like this. I couldn’t understand why even my own family didn’t seem to see how difficult it was. It felt like nobody cared about me.
That was the night I decided to rebel.
There were a few women in our community who came from a different cultural group and who didn’t follow Chhaupadi Pratha. I knew that people talked behind their backs, but as far as I could tell, nothing bad ever seemed to happen to them. Even my health teacher at school insisted that menstruation was natural, and that Chhaupadi was just a Nepali superstition. But my parents are both incredibly strict – my dad is a priest and my mum is very religious – and it felt impossible to talk to them.
It was only when I was 18 that I heard about a new programme organised by the nongovernmental organisations Restless Development and PeaceWin, called Towards Abolition Of Chhaupadi Practices, and things really started to change for me. They came to our village and told us that they would help us to overcome the tradition. One of the Restless Development supervisors offered to come and speak to my parents on my behalf. It took about three or four months to convince them, but eventually they gave in and allowed me to sleep inside. My mum followed suit shortly after.
These days when I get my period, everything is normal. I’m still not allowed in the kitchen, but I spend my evenings studying my college textbooks before making my bed and going to sleep under a soft duvet. Our family’s Chhaupadi hut lies empty, except for when it’s being used to store hay for the buffalo. But even though the government says Chhaupadi is illegal now, some women and girls from my village are still made to sleep outside during menstruation. There aren’t any huts left, so they just curl up in small shelters in front of their houses. And when I see them, I feel so sad. I wish they could speak up against Chhaupadi as well.
Restless Development is a charity that helps young people from all over the world come up with solutions to help solve the problems in their communities, from ending child marriage to preventing HIV. To get involved or find out more, visit their website.