Perspectives: The Practice of Chhaupadi
This month, the STF community is discussing women’s health around the world, from tampon taxes to reproductive rights and maternal health. STF Scholar Deepa took the opportunity to share more about the practice of chhaupadi, a local tradition for women on their periods in Western Nepal. The following piece is in her words, with edits for clarity.
by Deepa Bohara Mijar, STF Scholar at BlinkNow
Chhaupadi is a unique tradition practiced by girls and women in Nepal during menstruation. In this, women are kept in the the cow shed of a separate place (also called a chhau goth) for 13 days during their first period and for 5–7 days of each month during menstruation for the rest of their lives. The Nepalese people believe the chhaupadi pratha should be honestly followed because of religious beliefs toward Hindu Gods. People think that women on their period are impure and can’t perform daily activities. It’s believed that if the rules aren’t followed, the Hindu Gods will be angry and put curses on the family. Often times if the rule is broken you’ll see elders in the family shaking, trembling, and shouting. Whenever anything bad happens, like a snake coming near the house, or a relative becoming ill, it is most often blamed on these rules not being followed. When the rules are broken, a big ceremony needs to happen and the girl or woman must apologize to the Gods by saying that she won’t do this again and promising to follow the rules in the future. Oftentimes, an animal such as a chicken or goat in sacrificed to honor the Gods.
This tradition is followed strictly in the far western and mid-western districts but it is observed across the entire country. It doesn’t even distinguish between different castes or socio-economic groups. When women stay in the shed, they are only provided with a small gundri (a thin mat made of straw) or a thin-layered rug. The reason bed sheets and blankets aren’t given is that the family wouldn’t be able to use them again. You can imagine during the winter months, especially in the mountains, that there is extremely cold weather.
A few months ago in Palatie village in Western Nepal, a young girl lost her life while following the chhaupadi practice. When women from the village found out, they had a big rally and destroyed the chhau goth where the girl died as a symbol that this tradition needs to stop. To me, this shows that women are making progress and realizing that it’s time to stop this practice.
I had my first period when I was 12 years old. It was in November, and it was cold, and I was banished to stay at my neighbor’s [because we don’t have a chhau goth at our home]. I slept in their shed on the floor on a straw mat and used my jacket as a pillow. I wasn’t allowed to go to my house for 13 days. I wasn’t even allowed to look in the direction of my house, or even talk to my family members, particularly the males. I love papaya, and I remember vividly being told that I wasn’t allowed to eat the papaya because it is considered a holy fruit and if I touched it, the entire tree would rot. I couldn’t drink cow’s milk for this reason as well, because the cow symbolizes Goddess Laxmi mata. It is believed that if we drink milk during menstruation than the cow will stop giving milk because of the curse. It’s the same for oil which is also considered holy. We can’t put oil on our bodies or in our hair. We can’t touch the water source. We can’t cook food. We can’t physically touch anyone. After those first 13 days I bathed, received new clothes, and drank some drops of cow urine to purify myself. After this, I was allowed to go home.
I’m a student at Kopila Valley School. In biology and health class we have learned about the reason for menstruation. We understand the implications and the fact that this is a natural occurrence in the human body. Most of us even understand that it’s not sinful or a curse. However we don’t want to be blamed for the misfortune or bad things that happen to our family, so still we feel like we need to follow the practice. Most women in my village practice forms of chhaupadi.
I think it’s worth noting that in previous decades there was no such thing as menstrual pads and sanitary napkins so when women were bleeding it was thought of as dirty and impure. But now, with increased access to sanitary pads, there is no reason for this fear.
It’s hard to believe that this custom is still happening in the 21st Century. I do think we should know better. I want to be clear that I also believe in the beautiful traditions and religious customs of my country. I love Nepal. I want to respect and follow our culture and our religious beliefs and emulate these traditions some day in my own family. But to me, chhaupadi is an outdated tradition based on fear and misunderstanding, and I do think this is one tradition we should stop practicing. I consider it more of a superstition than a religious practice.
Women in Nepal shouldn’t have to sleep in conditions worse than a prison simply because their body is doing something natural. They should be empowered to make the decision of whether or not they want to practice chhaupadi on their own, instead of being intimidated into following this.