Menstrual Seclusion: Women for 8 years, Men for 2 years
It was mid-October 2015, the weather is getting cooler especially in the morning in Jumla, a mountainous district in North-West of Nepal. It was about to 5 AM. I was following the noise though pretending that I had have deep sleep at my bed of home stay in Kartikswami village.
A five years girl, named Shishika (name changed) was calling from outside.
Shishika: Bajyeai, dhoka khola na ( Grandmom, please open the door). Open the door.
Due to cold, she was trying to hide within the arms of grandma. I continuously was following their conversation.
Grand mom: why did you scream? Where were your parents?
Shishika: Mom had bahir sarin (menstruation); she went to chhuikotha (separate room in ground floor) along with brother. Dad went to the next house.
Shishika has three months brother. Her mom is government employee as a health worker in the village and her dad is working in renounced NGO which is working for women empowerment.
I got the sense of conversation. Her mom went to separate room which is always dirty, dark, limited raged clothes and in ground floor. They haven’t had the cows and of course cowshed. Most of the villagers have cattle and shed for them where women and girls are sleeping during their period called Chhaupadi in Nepal where women and girls segregated at least five days during period and 11 days during childbirth. They are living in literally in cowshed along with cattle whatever they have. Usually, they use raged clothes above the pine leaves and sleep. Pine leaves piercing here and there, there are various forms of insects, fleas, bedbugs (I myself slept in a cowshed to test the hardship). There was bad smell of dungs, urine and decay of pine leaves or other types of hay which is stored for long winter. During winter, in many places, the temperature abruptly went down up to -30 degree Celsius. In this case, they use firewood for making warm. Many women and girls were died due to suffocation from the collection of Carbon monoxide at their unventilated room. Many were died because of cold. Many were died because of snake’s or wild animal bites. Many women and girls subjected to rape, sexual abuse, exploitation and stigma and discrimination is very common.
By keeping all facts in my mind, I became restlessness; it was cold though I went down to see that woman. She was lying down with three months boy, he is so sweet and smiley. I played with him for a while and asked to his mom (everyone called her Love).
Radha: What did you teach to villagers on Chaupadi, care of babies and mothers etc.
Love: I taught them that it is harmful practice and have to abolish.
Radha: Really ? I didn’t believe? [ bit anger tone]
Love: Yes, I do [laughter..].
Radha: If so why did you here with such small boy, dirty and cold room?
Love: My sister didn’t follow last month (she also health worker) and she got sick so I didn’t like to get sick as she.
I pretended that I was so furious with her. I simply said that you all are criminal. You were cheating innocent people. You hadn’t have right to tell if you wouldn’t follow. I also criticized their education; meanwhile, I cooled down and started to teach as I am doing in village to village and everywhere on menstrual restriction.
Radha: Do you aware of how many days do you stay in this room in a year?
Love: [silence ……………and smiled…….]
Radha: You sleep here for five days in a month, means 12 times in a year so total 60 days or 2 months in a year.
When did you menstruate at first?
Love: At 12 years old.
Radha: Do you ever think that how many years do you sleep in your reproductive life ?
Love: I never ever think in such deeper level, sorry…..!
Radha: Two months a year for 36 years (estimated menopause age 48 years), means 72 months in total means 6 years in reproductive age.
Love: Oh my god !, I never thought in such way.
Radha: Unfortunately, you have more days.
Love: How come? It’s not true? You were exaggerating at all? You wanted to make scared me.
Radha: No, not at all. This is true. Let me explain. Where did your daughter sleep when you have period after she born?
Love: Is that really questioned? She had to feed breast milk. So she slept with me as like my son now. [She tightly hold her son and seemed more emotional].
Radha: It’s ok, don’t worry at all. I just like to know the facts. If so, as likely your daughter, you slept with your mom since infancy. Haven’t you add more years then?
She had beaten her tongue and flushed her face and nodding her head for yes.
Radha: You had fed breast milk for 2- 3 years and had continued to sleep with mother as company till you get marriage or away from your home, right? In such condition, at least 12 years means total 24 months or 2 years. Thus, you should add 2 years in your earlier 6 years. Now, the total years of segregation is 8 years.
Have you ever think, how much loss in your health, economic life, political life and all because of all.
Love: Very honestly, I don’t know at all, Phupu..(Aunt).I am following all because of tradition and pleasing to my parents and personally, I also scared to abolish the restrictions. I have strong believe on god.
Radha: Since you are health worker from city, you should aware. There are many immediate affects from Chhaupadi as follows;
1. Devastating situations: many women and girls are died, subjected to rape, sexual violence, harassment, stigma because of living in segregation. It is serious form of human right violence.
2. Urinary and Reproductive Health Illness (URHI): though there are other contributing factors for URTI, the Chhaupadiis one of the key cause. Because they profoundly exposed with dirty clothes, dung, dusts and so on since childhood. Consequently, many women and girls are suffering from chronic URHI including infertility, uterus prolapse.
3. Mental and psychological trauma: since childhood, they have deep trauma from it. Girls considered themselves as cattle. If we think bit optimistic way, they considered themselves as low status than their brothers and fathers. That kind of learning, humiliation is permanently constructed. Many girls like to commit suicide even after 4-5 years of period (AWON, 2013). They thought that they born as girl as a consequence of sin of earlier life. Meantime, boys also considered that super power or higher position than boys.
4. Deprivation in political participation: because of period, many women absent from group meetings due to unable to putting thumb stamp in attendance register, many women don’t join the cultural gathering due to scared of touching. Many girls remain absent in school due to many reasons; sacred to touch books, men members and temple at school. They also sacred because of leaking of blood due to no toilet, water and sanitary towels.
As a result of immediate affects, there are many long term negative impacts as follows;
1. Peace building: women and girls are living in internal and external conflicts. They regret for being born as girl or female. In addition, women and girls are living in deprivation from basic needs such as warm, food, love, respect, dignity etc. In this connection, peace is fully torched at individual and family levels.
2. Empowerment: women are deprived from various forms of opportunities since childhood which has huge cost in political participation, economic empowerment and overall empowerment.
3. Development: once there is no participation of caliber or empowered women, there is no sustained peace. Once there is no peace and women, how can we imagine for sustainable development.
I would say, unfortunately, boys also slept in cowshed though biologically they never ever have period.
She just nodding her head and continuously looking down.
Radha: see, your son never has period but since 3 months he is sleeping in separate room. Later, sons are sleeping with their mom unless until they felt secure with their mom. As your nephew, usually they sleep up to 10-11 years or before teenage. It means they also segregated about 2 years in their life due to period.
The half of the sky has been experience of period as piece and parcel of nature and divine for social legacy. No one can deny this natural character or no one can steal from women. Unfortunately, it was misinterpreted by our ancestors and it is continuously practiced across the globe where Nepalese are living.
The bottom-line principle of Chhaupadi is restriction. There are three forms of restrictions in practice; entering, touching and eating. The women and girls don’t allow to enter in to the house because of blood (a form of impurity) so they segregated in various forms of cowshed since history where no knowledge, skills, technology and all. It is easily can imagined that the blood could give smell and attracts flies and blood became contaminated. The menstrual blood pure as other blood (in normal situation) but get contaminated right after expulsion from vagina. Unfortunately, ancestors unaware about all and might be said that the god would angry if women wouldn’t leave the house.
Now, the time change and change many things in our surroundings. It has being taught in high school but the practice is still following everywhere such as USA, UK. The health teacher, personnel, social activists, scholars are practicing at the name of culture, religion, pleasing their parents or faith healers or in- laws but it is very impulsive practice indeed.
At that house, the grandma and granddad are the health worker and teacher respectively. I don’t see the accountability at all. I often used this family for my home stay as principle and practice of Miteri –mutual love and respect, while travelling to Jumla headquarter. I didn’t tell them that I have period though the toilet is not appropriate to maintain my cleanliness, privacy and confidentiality. There is no bathroom and no place of waste disposal. However, I managed to hide.
I don’t have regret and won’t be regret throughout my life that my friend and I were eating at their third story kitchen with our period but a three-month boy was following Chhaupadi for the sake of god. Personally, I believe in nature, to me nature is god. God made women in a way who can continue the society, so there is no point to stay in segregation at all.