Open Letter: Education about Menstruation Changes Everything

Open Letter: Education about Menstruation Changes Everything

by Radha Paudel
The tug of war was observed at CSW 61th meeting, March 17. One side of the Nepalese coin was explaining that Nepal has historical moment for women where three key leading position are holding by rural women who represented from Eastern and western rural Nepal. More importantly, Nepal gets the membership in CEDAW committee at first time in history. The other side of the coin was saying, yes, it was true, absolutely true, Nepal made history nationally and globally. But, there was nothing for the sake of rural girls and women, they just show case or politically compromised positions because their voice never represented. The reason behind the women leaders in key positions is for using and addressing the specific needs, interests, insights, experiences and priorities of girls and women because men never have such experiences. There were many examples to show where the key positioned women leaders remained silence or even discouraged e.g. a 15 years adolescent girl and 21 years mother found dead in cowshed, Achham in November 2016. This is the background of tug of war whether the advocates accountable towards donors or community. Those, who believed and practiced downward accountability, they keep speaking across globe no matter whether they blamed by their Nepalese folks. 

It was not single incident for me. I experienced such kind of tug of war at local, national and international workshops, conferences with the human right activists represented from UN, I/NGOs, media even government. They responded, ‘oh, Radha is referring Chhaupadi, it is only practising in far west Nepal in earlier days, now it is getting better. Few added, women were so happy to segregated from their kitchen work as well as from their partners.  It is right to choice.”

Here, let me cross-sect of these two ideas; Chhaupadi and right to choice. If anyone use the Chhaupadi goth (shed), the literature showed that it has been practising in 21 districts lies in far and mid-west region plus Gorkha and Dhading. If anyone use the word Chhaupadi only, applies across the world where Nepalese resided. The bottom line principle of putting girls and women in cowshed or separate hut is restriction. It is restriction for not enter in to house and not touch even the foundation of house. More importantly, girls and women are not only segregated but also are following various forms restrictions. Nepalese community is practising more than 40 types of restriction regardless of education, class, caste, religion, region. These restrictions can be clubbed in to following three types; i) restriction in terms of touching, ii) restrictions in terms of entering and mobility, iii) restriction in terms of eating. Girls and women restrict not to touch any male members of the family and community, not touch any pregnant women, infant, any plant of fruits, vegetables, flowers, any religious person, religious books, any reading materials house, temple, no sex etc. Likewise, girls and women are not allow to eat any milk and milk products, meat and meat products, prasad (the materials which is offered to god), pickle, radish, any citrus fruits/ food etc. Girls and women also not allow to enter in to house, temple, school, meetings where men, religious women are there etc. The ranges of restriction is vary place to place though found everywhere. I witnessed these restrictions in London, USA and got the information of same in Australia as well. In this connection, putting additional layer of discrimination to mid and far west, if any one says that it is practising in only far and mid-west Nepal. 

In Kathmandu valley, the land is so expensive so they do not have cows and cowshed. Women confined in a corner if she rented a room by following many forms of restrictions. They can’t put girls and women in cowshed but principle of segregation is same. I interviewed with many girls and boys from various public and private schools in Kathmandu valley and founded that their mother, sisters are practising at home as well as huge stigma in school as well.

There is different form of saying for menstrual days such as Maharani, MC (short form of menstruation). Usually menstruation is recognised as Chhui (contamined), nachhune (not being touchable), bahir sareko (getting out), pancheko(being far), chhau(bleed), manhinabari (monthly bleed), bhagwanale tike lagaidiyeko (god put red color) etc. but the right term is menstruation means happen every month.

Because of following sets of restriction, girls and women suffering from various forms of affects at immediate as well as long term.  Because of poor nutrition, hygiene, absence of school for 60 (average five days in a month) days in an academic year, they would have poor health, suffering from various urinary, reproductive tract infections, malnutrition, anaemia, and deeply traumatise. As a result, they lost their self-esteem and self-determination since first menstruation or before that. Finally, they started to fail in subject and class in few years later and finally dropped off from school and encouraged to have forced and voluntary marriage. Here, let me share a saying the adolescent girls from Jumla and Kalikot who wanted to commit suicide due to menstrual restrictions including Chhaupadi goth. I also like to die for several years once I saw the menstrual blood and knew that it was a result of the sin from god when I was only about seven years old and witnessed various forms of abuses on my sisters at cowshed and the process of Rishipanchami (annual cleansing ritual followed by red colour festival, Teej). Such powerless, worthless feelings deeply embedded since childhood whereas boys feel more powerful, worthiness. The restrictions during menstruation is responsible factor for cultivating all forms of gender based violence. The media reported the cases related with menstrual restriction if it is associated with rape, murder or death but no one see the multiple layers of discrimination due to sets of restrictions during menstruation. The rape, death, murder are the only the outcome of the menstrual restrictions but merely none of activist understand this dynamics. So the ignorance embodied with the educated people and development activist instead of villagers (unlearned for new learning). Villagers deserved to practice because they learned and constructed in a way and living in very closed society. For them, only god is helping them since they know. Once they know the menstrual physiology and deconstruct the all myths and rumours with rationalisation, the learning took place faster than them.

During period, my late mother and sisters worked in field, carrying the fresh compost fertiliser, went to forest 30 years ago and it is continuing in many places of the country. From the shed, girls and women are doing heavy work such as carrying stone for house construction, working in forest, farm etc. In this situation, how the advocates can have justified that they are in rest for four days. Here, I challenged them whether they are promoting human right of girls and women or not.

Girls and women do not have any say for their personal life and body at all even in urban educated family.  I just observed a case in central Terai where a twenty-two years old, master running sister is safeguard by 14 years, ten grade brother and six-year brother was saying to eleven graded sister that you don’t have any authority here, you must go outside house (poel means marriage) in west Nepal. Girls and women are accepted as a part of life and prestige. They neither know about their rights what they deserved nor they claimed. The reports and observation showed that girls and women couldn’t go even health facilities without permission from father in law or husband or father or brother. I observed many cases where husbands allow to check his wife’s reproductive organs even in serious sickness. In this situation, how do my friends justified the right to choose. I do agree with right to choose that apply to me or a girl or women who can decide about her ideas, thoughts and body by herself.

More importantly, even the educated and urban girls and women do not aware about their rights related with menstruation. The Constitution 2015 clearly mentioned two words ‘gender’ and ‘discrimination’ should not be the basis for categorize the people in the country or everyone equal by the rule of law of this country. Furthermore, under the fundamental rights, there are 10 different articles which directly demanded the rights related with menstruation. They are Article 16: Right to Dignified life, Article 17: Right to Freedom, Article 18: Right to Equality, Article 24: Right to against discrimination and contamination (Chhuwachhut), Article 30: Right to Healthy Environment, Article 31: Right to Education, Article 35: Right to Health, Article 36: Right to Food, Article 37: Right to House and Article 38: Right to Women. Unfortunately, these articles are for show case like women leaders in nation’s key positions. Additionally, the global policy SDG target’s 6.2 directly speak about the gender responsive toilets in school but never spells a single world of MHM directly. But, the good MHM is the pre-condition for achieving many SDGs such as hunger, poverty, health, education, and gender. Thus, menstrual rights are overlooked for a long in development and right discourse not only in Nepal but also globally. Since 2014 when UN declared that the menstrual restrictions is key barrier for achieving gender equality and same year the Menstrual Hygiene day started to celebrate globally as most prioritise issue.

By considering all facts and figures, the menstrual restriction is key hindering factor to cultivate the culture of peace and justice within person, within family and community. It is also serious form of human right violation and state of disempowerment. In this scenario, does any organisation at various levels could achieve the peace, human right, empowerment and SDG in real sense. Often people think that menstruation is matter of girls and women’s issue. It is very wrong concept or stereotyped mindset. It is men’s issue, it’s boy’s issue and it is everyone’s issue because it is human right issue.
In addition to ignorance and gender discrimination, menstrual restriction associated with religion or culture. In one case, it is also part of ignorance and gender discrimination but constructed permanently through the religious books. Among all religions, Hindu religion specially Chanakya Niti 6,3 and 11:12, Gaurn Puran (use for death ritual); 6, 7, Rishipanchami described the menstruation as ‘dirty’, ‘impure’, ‘contaminated’ and outcome of sin from god Indra. These Hindu notions are transfer generation to generation without questioning. It is also happened due to old Hindu epics, not having specific policies to address this and poverty to live with safe, clean manner due to the issues related with quality sanitary materials and its affordability, accessibility, availability and quality.

Here, it is important to discuss about private and public sphere in relation with menstrual restrictions. The girls and women who are belong with non-Hindu and non -Aryan group, also influenced and practising ranges of restriction as matter of fact of prestige. They do not practice at their private sphere such as family but following at public sphere because there is huge stigma and stigma in the public sphere as well as there is no mechanism for hygiene and environment concern.  It has also other side among Aryan and Hindu community. Few of them, as development activists e.g. gender expert, they do not practice at public sphere at macro level because ethically they do not like to disclose the practice of restriction. In other hand, mostly they come from elite family so can manage the hygiene matters. But, they are serious practitioner at private life at the name of their in laws, culture and so on. Thus, the menstrual health management remained overlooked in such 60 years of development in Nepal.

Indeed, menstrual blood is just a natural product beyond anyone’s control. Since the day one of humanization, there is male and female and menstruation existed for put forwarded the human creature by nature. So, it is the most known fact and no any single manner of or being stigmatised. Due to institutionalize the menstrual restriction, it is huge challenge to unpack but possible. Based on my experience engaging with faith healers, men and boys, women, politicians, media is the best way unveil of the menstrual restriction. The campaign would get speed if an appropriate policy will in place followed by reward for the hero who break the silence.

There are many women and men are breaking the silence around menstruation for many years ago but who recognise them and felicitated. For instance, Radha Paudel, activist and Madan Purskar winner for Khalangama Hamala was did the 13 days death ritual during the death of her mother in 2009 along with her sister and brother. She violated all family and community codes by running away from home without permission when she had first means at age of 14.

This year 2017, the international Menstrual day is celebrating globally with slogan’ Education about Menstruation changes everything‘. Never late, the space is getting wider and accepted widely in many ways. I strongly believed that the people who criticised me and my work would realise the urgency and significance of breaking the silence around menstruation for achieving their life long job around peace, human right, empowerment. I wish all the best to everyone!  

Few stakeholders are started to work in menstrual hygiene issue in few locations of the country but they far behind for telling the truth about menstruation and focusing on counting the toilets and sanitary materials which are not bad but very indirect and slow process of breaking the silence. For instance, none of the major political parties considered the menstrual restriction is serious issue in their local election manifesto 2017. Because they do not see the menstruation is key hindering factor of peace, violation of human right and empowerment. More importantly, it is the pre/condition to accomplished sustainable development goals largely. Hope will address during their tenure and girls and women would live with dignity and respect.

Note> This article forwarded to Kathmandu post

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