After roaming the aisles of one of Kathmandu’s biggest supermarkets, I asked a female employee if the store was selling any tampons. Her perplexed face left both of us feeling rather uncomfortable. I understood immediately that menstruation and whatever came with it, was not something to talk openly in this part of the world – especially not in public. In Nepal, women and girls are generally considered impure when on their periods, and, because of this, they face a whole set of restrictions during their monthly cycle. Some even have to sleep separately to other family members or outside their usual residence while menstruating. This seclusion is a cultural practice that, locally, goes under the name Chhaupadi. Monica Upadhyay, the Communications and Partnerships Officer of UN Women in Nepal explains: “Some women practicing Chhaupadi have to live in a tiny shed or outbuilding often not big enough to fit a bed, with virtually no windows and only a tiny door. Women practicing Chhaupadi are forbidden from using public water sources, and therefore have little access to clean water. Their personal hygiene is poor, due to limited access to sanitation and sanitary items as well as confined dwelling arrangements. Meat and dairy products are prohibited in the Chhaupadi diet, therefore most women suffer from malnutrition and dehydration due to restricted diet.” Chhaupadi can lead to attacks by wild animals, snakebites, diseases, and poor mental health, says Upadhyay. "Being shunned by their own families and communities once a month has lasting psychological effects on a woman’s confidence, self-esteem and well-being. Feelings of guilt, humiliation, shame, anxiety and depression are commonly experienced by women undergoing Chhaupadi.” This information is echoed by Kristine Blokhus, the Deputy Representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) of Nepal. She lists the negative impacts on psychosocial well-being as: “depression, low self-esteem, and disempowerment, as well as fear of sexual abuse and assault”. She says rape is another big issue resulting from practicing Chhaupadi. Women in sheds are often victims of sexual abuse as they are exposed, unprotected and powerless. Upadhyay argues that sexual violence is often committed with impunity as menstruating women undergoing Chhaupadi have little to no voice or rights: “Upholding their claims would be seen as to upset the gods and bring ill fate and disaster to the communities."
Despite being outlawed by the Supreme Court in 2005, with some villages having declared themselves as Chhaupadi-free zones, I am informed by both Upadhyay and Blokhus that Chhaupadi continues to exist due to illiteracy, superstitious beliefs, gender disparity and deep-rooted traditions, especially in the Far and Mid-Western regions of Nepal. Girls from these areas even have to miss school for several days whilst on their periods – severely limiting their future socioeconomic opportunities. This perpetuates a cycle of poverty for women and further increases the disparity between boys and girls on levels of education. Yet the belief that women are unclean when menstruating is not limited to rural areas, remaining endemic among many Nepali families. Women from educated and affluent family backgrounds in Kathmandu and other urban/semi-urban areas are still very much engrained in the tradition of menstrual seclusion. As I sat with 26-year-old Aparna Singh and 21-year-old Aishwarya Shrestha, both working for local based NGO Women LEAD, Aishwarya tells me: “I know all about the stories of girls forced to stay in cowsheds during their cycle but I’ve never experienced it first-hand. But here in Kathmandu we’re still not allowed to enter the kitchens, we have various food restrictions, and we cannot even enter the temples in our home." She continues: "In my house, on the fourth day of my cycle I have to take a bath, and I have to take a small gold bracelet, dip it into water and sprinkle it all over my house. This is considered to be the purification of the house. The only other time we have to do such a thing is when a person dies and people are coming back from the funeral. You have to sprinkle a piece of gold jewellery dropped in water beforehand everywhere in the house. As you can see menstruation is almost seen as negatively as death!” Singh adds: “Yes and in addition to taking a bath, at least in my home, we’re asked to take our bedsheets and pillow cases, wash them and dry them in the sun after we’ve used them while on our periods.” They both laugh, and I ask them why. “Because we realise now how ridiculous this whole thing is”, Shrestha exclaims: “I only follow Chhaupadi if my parents are there; even my brother tells me how wrong this practice is. I’m no longer following it now because I know menstruation is a natural process, I’ve been taught this by Women LEAD. But in the rural areas, not many have the privilege to access education, so they don’t know what’s happening to their bodies, they just think it’s the gods punishing them. It is a common belief that, if girls don’t respect Chhaupadi rules, their parents cannot enter the heavens. This is also why parents very much enforce it on their children – they want to go to heaven.”
So, how does one go about challenging harmful practices that are deeply engrained in traditional culture? Blokhus emphasises how UNFPA’s programmes use culturally sensitive, human rights-based approaches: “We work very closely with local community leaders, media, religious leaders, political parties, teachers and women activists – influential community figures who have an impact on social norms. In some cases, UNFPA has worked with astrologers, who are extremely influential, for example in interpreting ‘good’ and ‘bad’ omens, and can hence be instrumental in changing perceptions around Chhaupadi.” Both Blokhus, and Upadhyay from UN Women, view Chhaupadi as a serious violation of women’s basic human rights and believe that rather than addressing Chhaupadi as a standalone issue, it needs to be understood in the broader context of gender inequality: “it is important to change community knowledge, attitudes and practices towards sexual and reproductive health and rights to accept menstruation as a normal, natural, biological phenomena, and build the capacity and life skills of women and girls to better cope with the effects of gender-based violence as well as the consequences of Chhaupadi for local development and community well-being”, Upadhyay argues. Women LEAD is well known in Kathmandu for having established School Leadership Programmes addressing issues that are not often talked about, such as menstruation, so that both girls and boys can understand it’s a normal bodily process. “One of the first things we do during these workshops, is tell the girls that if they’re on their periods they shouldn’t fear asking us for pads. You should see the look on their faces!” Stephanie Arzate, Women LEAD’s Research and Communications Fellow informs me: “We try to enrol youths from different castes, classes, and religions to empower a broad range of young people to become advocates to talk about menstrual taboos amongst their peers and communities. Recently in our programme we’ve also started talking about ruby cups and introducing it to the girls.”
So I asked – can you buy tampons in Nepal?
“Actually – only sanitary pads are available and only in some parts of Nepal”, Shrestha answers. "Tampons are not so famous and hopefully soon ruby cups will be available on the Nepali market. We had a course on whether girls could think of other options than sanitary pads, because the ones we buy are really not very comfortable. They give you rashes. But we were given ruby cups to test out and it seems to be a really good product. In terms of tampons, I’ve heard that it’s made using toxic chemicals and that it’s not good for your health.” Blokhus’ final comment is that changing cultures and mind-sets can be challenging and slow. "In this type of work, we do sometimes encounter resistance from more conservative people in local communities. But even in very conservative communities, there are always some people who are more open to change than others. For us, the key is identifying these – perhaps it is the school teacher, or the local nurse, or a religious leader – who is willing to listen, reflect, and act as a spokesperson and an agent of change. In every culture in the world, attitudes and values change over time.”