IDEAS For Us Nepal created an informative, highlight video of their Butterfly Campaign Program to demonstrate the life of menstruating women in Nepal. The video opens up to the inside of a small, dimly lit stone shed, in which are two teenage girls. They sit on the ground, dressed in a combination of long sleeves and traditional Nepali sarees. When one of their mothers comes and pushes back the thin curtains that separate them from the outside world, they stand to accept their water, each receiving a small amount in their cups. Next, they are given food from the other mother. What is on the menu? Corn. This meager amount of food and water that we see the menstruating teenagers take are all they will have for each day spent in the shed.
And at the time of the video, it is day five. The girls are sharply reminded from one of the mothers that during her time, she was restricted too. With strict passion, she lists off the things they must not do: go out into the sun, look at men, go to the kitchen, touch water. She tells them all things are restricted and must follow traditions by staying in the shed for seven days.
What is this? The people of Nepal have long practiced chhaupadi, banishing, and exiling girls and women to huts or sheds, for seven days while they are on their period(1). There is the longstanding belief that menstruating women and girls are unpure and polluted. Mary Cameron, a professor of anthropology at Florida Atlantic University says “In far-west Nepal [where the strictest forms of chhaupadi are practiced], the practice is tied to deities—the belief that any kind of impurity will make deities angry and may cause misfortune to a community.” (2) While in the menstrual huts, which are often tiny, cold, and poorly ventilated, the women have little to no sanitary or hygienic products(2). As seen in the video, food, and water are usually scarce.
The practice has even affected many girls’ ability to go to school. When menstruating, they are to be isolated, and not to touch any books. As a result, girls fall behind on their studies and struggle to make up work and keep up, on a monthly basis. Even if the family allows them to attend school, schools are typically ill-equipped to provide clean bathrooms and hygienic products, and there may only be one bathroom for hundreds of students (3). A 2009 study conducted by WaterAid Nepal found “Over half of the respondents in the study reported being absent from school at some time, due to menstruation. Lack of privacy for cleaning and washing was the main reason given, (41 percent).”(4)
Beyond the mental impact of being considered dirty and polluted, and the poor hygienic conditions and health risks, chhaupadi has proven to be fatal. Over the last thirteen years in just two districts in Nepal, 15 girls and women have died while practicing chhaupadi (5). Chhaupadi has been practiced for centuries, but the Nepali government along with women’s advocacy and health groups, have been trying to eradicate the social taboo through education. The IDEAS For Us – Nepal branch, and their The Nepal Health Corps network, are one of the organizations working to spread awareness and education on menstrual health. They are doing this work with Sustainability Development Goal 5 (Gender Equality) through their Butterfly Campaign Program.
The Nepal Health Corps was formed in 2019 through the United Nations Sustainable Development Solution Network and it’s Youth initiatives, under IDEAS For Us in Nepal. They mobilize health students, doctors, and experts throughout the country. The goal of the Menstruation Management Program is to “understand the knowledge, attitude, and practice of adolescent students on menstruation and related taboos in Lalitpur district.” The program aims to understand the current situation surrounding the topic, to educate on proper hygiene menstruation management, to provide training on making reusable cloth pads, and to encourage participants to advocate at their community.
Source: Nepal Health Corps
In the project highlight video, we see the Butterfly Campaign at work, to bring an understanding of the community’s perception and the beginning of the education process. From in front of the girls family home, their Grandfather is seated and visited by two health professionals, Pradish Poudel and Dr. Sarada Poudel. They speak to him about how they’ve heard that there are girls in the village sent to menstrual huts, and have come to speak to the girls in question. The Grandfather proudly declares yes, they are here and shares the story of how a woman in the village didn’t stay in the hut, which resulted in the death of the family’s oxen and buffalo. He even says that COVID-19 abounds because of people not following traditions and religions. The belief that mishaps and bad fortune are a result of women not going into the menstrual hut clearly abounds in this rural Nepalese village.
After a discussion with the mothers if Dr. Poudel and his wife can see the girls, Mukhiya, the head of the village, is brought in to make the final decision if the girls can be visited. Once he learns from the Poudel’s that the practice may in fact be dangerous and is against the law, he decides they can speak to the girls and declares “we need to gather all women in the area and give training regarding this.”
When the Poudel’s visit the girls, they relate that they are hungry and have trouble sleeping, especially since they are afraid of the roaring tigers that roam near the village. The girls are eager for the practice to end, and each of them promises a commitment to one another in order to bring about change.
Part of the education to the group of women focuses on how keeping girls in the sheds is unhygienic and unhealthy. Both of the Poudl’s emphasize how the nutritional value of the food they are given is especially important during menstruation when losing so much blood. But perhaps the greatest emphasis of their discussion is the focus on how menstruation isn’t something that is bad but instead, is beautiful. The Poudel’s emphasize how menstruation paves the way for motherhood and birth. Dr. Poudel emphasizes that it is because of the menstruation days, we are born, while Pradish Poudel reminds the mothers that “when a girl gets her period in [the] future she can become a mother, grandmother. So this is a matter of happiness.”
Source: Clip from Nepal Highlight Video
It is up to the women, the whole family to be there for their daughters, they say so that “they can focus on their studies, and we as a family must inspire them to be productive in these times. We hope you have taken this to your heart.”
Mukhiya has declared that the village is committed to eradicating these practices and that his community will slowly learn to adapt to the less rigorous cultural practices. While the video ends in happy waves, there is no doubt that commitment to the message and hard work on behalf of the whole community is required in order for the community to drop the traditional menstrual huts. It has long been a social taboo, but IDEAS For Us Nepal, through the Butterfly Campaign, are hopeful that through education and sanitary pads, the girls and women of Nepal can take flight from thor menstrual huts and into a healthy, equal life.
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Feature image photographed by Photo by: Ashish Acharya