In July last year, a 15-year-old girl was found dead in a shed in Achham district, Nepal. She was a ninth grader at the local Rastra Bhasha Secondary School. The police officer investigating the case said the girl died of suffocation caused by smoke; she had made the fire in the shed to keep herself warm. But why had she been banished from her family's house and forced to sleep out in the cold shed? Her family was forcing her to observe an ancient custom known as chhaupadi.
What is chhaupadi?
Chhaupadi is linked to Hinduism and considers women untouchable when they menstruate, as well as after childbirth. Many communities in Nepal view menstruating women as impure and in some remote areas they are banished from the home during their periods – forced to sleep in a basic shed or hut, known as chhau goth, barred from touching food, religious icons, cattle and men. The Women's Development Officer of Achham district, Bhagawati Aryal, said more than 10 women and girls in the district lost their lives due to chhaupadi since 2006.
Is it legal to isolate women and girls in this way?
The Supreme Court of Nepal issued a directive against the tradition in 2005, but due to lack of a legislation, chhaupadi was never criminalized. It continued to flourish, predominantly in Nepal's mid- and far-western regions, where it is estimated up to 95 percent of women and girls practice chhaupadi.
Nepal's patriarchal culture plays a vital part in the continuation of this custom even in the 21st century. Families can be the greatest source of support for children but also – under unfortunate circumstances – the greatest source of harm.
Save the Children has been advocating for complete abolition of the practice, collaborating with the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, as one of the member organizations of the Menstruation Hygiene Management Practitioner Alliance, and working closely with Ministry of Water Supply and Sanitation. Save the Children, as part of the alliance, played a role in several policy consultation workshops on menstrual hygiene management, at which staff and beneficiaries from mid- and far-western offices participated in the workshops actively. Such actions were key in making the relevant government agencies, including Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, realize the need for a bill to criminalize customs like chhaupadi.
A new bill was passed by the parliament on 9 August 2017 to criminalize chhaupadi.
So why is this isolating and discriminatory custom still followed?
Though parliament's passing of the criminal code bill has been commended by many, the issue could be its strict enforcement of the law. The law related to child marriage was passed 54 years ago, but the country still has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 37% of Nepalese girls getting married before the age of 18. The custom of child marriage is deeply rooted and is still accepted in many parts of the country based religious myths and cultural beliefs. Similarly, while the law states that no person may force a woman to practice chhaupadi, it remains true that many women themselves comply with the practice, having internalized the beliefs about impurity that justify this discriminatory practice. When some of the participants of a recent Spoken Word Poetry workshop, organized by Save the Children, were asked if they practice chhaupadi, the girls clearly stated that it was fine for them to continue practicing the custom.
What is Save the Children doing to protect women and girls from chhaupadi?
Save the Children has been working in mid- and far-western region to end the custom of chhaupadi in the region. The Dailekh field office has planned, as part of the Every Last Child Campaign, to make Chamundabraisni Municipality chhaupadi free by the end of 2018. Similarly, Achham field office has planned to take it as a campaign in Achham, where almost all the women and girls follow chhaupadi, to enforce the new law related to chhaupadi effectively in 2018.
Save the Children will work closely with elected local representatives, mostly with woman leaders, to discourage the voluntary practice of chhaupadi by women and girls. Working with men and boys will also be key as men and boys can always be allies in promoting lasting change.
Indeed, the practice of chhaupadi requires a more comprehensive approach than legislation alone can ever provide. Mindsets on gender discrimination, social inequalities between men and women and unequal power relations between adults and children, for example, also have to change, not only the law. Besides law enforcement, the solutions lie in initiatives that empower women and girls to take their rightful place in society and focus on the child as an active citizen in the context of family, community and society. This may include:
- Create platforms for girls to think critically and to think for themselves
- Provide girls and boys with age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education which helps them to understand the onset of puberty and the natural processes they experience
- Target adolescent girls with useful, practical, accurate information and advice to help them navigate this time of their life with facts and confidence rather than with myths and misconceptions
- Ensure the availability of low-cost sanitary pads and access to water
- Promote better access to health and multi-sectoral services which can empower girls and women to be comfortable with their own needs, and to seek help when these are not met
- Ensure access of girls and women to speak to health workers and social workers about their reproductive health, violence they may face and the choices they can make
Further information on the Criminal Code Bill
The Criminal Code Bill passed by the Parliament on 9 August 2017 criminalizes an ancient practice that banishes women from the home during menstruation.
The new law stipulates a three-month jail sentence or Rs 3,000 fine, or both, for anyone forcing a woman to follow the custom. It also states that a woman during her menstruation or post-natal state should not be kept in chhaupadi or treated with any kind of similar discrimination or untouchable and inhuman behavior. It will come into effect in a year's time.