Journey To Impurity

Maria Contreras Coll

2017 - 2018

The first menstruation is a turning point for every young woman in the world. In Nepal, this entry into adulthood is tied to a loss of purity. According to the Hindu faith, it is seen as a punishment for all women. In rural areas, menstrual women are exiled for a week, a practice known as Chhaupadi Partha. Some are forced to live among the wild stock to please the gods. When they are on their period they are not allowed to enter their houses, visit the temples or cook. Sometimes, they are not even allowed to look or talk to any male relative.

This year, Gauri Kumari Bayak, a 23-year-old woman, was found dead on a menstrual hut. Dozens of women and girls have died in recent years from following this tradition, despite the practice being banned by the Supreme Court in 2005. Women are constantly at risk of being bitten by snakes or choking from the fumes in the small, non-ventilated huts.

Although these restrictions have existed for decades, Nepali society is changing rapidly, with Western influence being brought by widespread access to new technologies, which are steadily becoming more and more present in the everyday lives of its inhabitants. In August 2017, for the first time in the history, the country criminalized the isolation of the menstrual women with a three-month jail sentence or a 3,000 rupee fine ($30), or both, for anyone that forces a woman to follow the custom.

In Kathmandu, a new generation of young people is reinventing traditions, making them their own. Some women from rural areas have started to question these practices and becoming activists. A growing number of them lead organizations and are empowering young girls in rural areas and teaching them about hygiene. Last May, the Menstrual Hygiene Day was celebrated for the first time with the theme ‘Education about menstruation changes everything’. "Since I was a kid I have it clear, I was not going to go to the hut to sleep as my mother and sisters", says Radha Paudel, one of the first Menstrual Activists of Nepal and author. "I'm sure the solution is in the education and in the younger minds, and that step by step we're going to achieve what we are dreaming of".

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  • Surekha, a 14-year-old girl from Achham district, poses for a portrait inside a “goth” during her first period. This little mud house was built up several years ago in order to keep menstruating women away from their own houses, a tradition called “Chhaupadi Partha”. For the first time in Surekha’s life, she will be considered impure and forced to live in this place for 7 days.

  • In most of the villages, women share the goth. These spaces are commonly not well ventilated, and dozens of women and girls have died in recent years from following this tradition, despite activists’ campaigns and government efforts to end the practice.

  • Narpata Boudha, a Nepalese 47-year-old woman from a remote far western village in Achham district, shows the only instruments she is allowed to use when she is on her period. Menstruating women are not allowed to touch any cooking instrument or the tap water. They can only use a specific bowl to drink the water that the neighbors might put on it and a separated plate where neighbors throw the food. They can’t eat in the community.

  • The most common cause of death in the menstrual huts is choking from the fumes during winter, and animal bites. “We want people to stop coming here, and to start helping us to change this practice”, says the father of Roshanu Tiruwa, a 15-year-old girl that was found dead on a menstrual hut in Achham on December 2016.

  • Surekha poses for a portrait inside the hut during her first period. When she realized that she had her first period, she was ashamed and tried to hide it. “I don’t feel impure or untouchable although this practice has changed a lot my daily life...”, she says, “I can’t believe that this is going to happen every month of my life”.

  • Surekha studies inside her house some months after she had her first period. In her neighbor village, the school is placed near a temple. There, scared of insulting the Gods, menstrual girls usually don’t attend class. Hygiene conditions in most of the schools don’t help with tackling this stigma, so girls just stay home, scared of getting publicly shamed.

  • In a village near Kathmandu Valley, Radha Paudel, a Menstrual Hygiene Activist and author, does a lecture about menstruation. This is part of different awareness programs she is promoting from her Foundation. At the end of Radha's lecture, all the assistants had crossed the hands and promised: "we will talk about menstruation at home and in our communities". Especially in the rural areas there is a lack of knowledge about this issue.

  • Swostika Sharma, a 15-year-old student from Kathmandu, draws during an awareness program that Radha Paudel Foundation has organized with the best art students of three different schools. They are participating in a contest to illustrate the motto “Menstruation Is Everyone's Business”. "When I have my period I sleep in my own bed, I do everything but to pray", says Swostica, "the only thing that makes it harder is the pain". In the urban areas, stigma over menstruation is starting to change thanks to initiatives like Rhada's.

  • Menstrual Hygiene Day is celebrated for the first time in Kathmandu. The main motto of the day is “Education about menstruation changes everything”. Different actors perform various acts for encouraging women to maintain personal hygiene and to fight against Chhaupadi Partha. "I cannot even imagine the pain of women during their menstrual cycle", says one of the male participants.

  • Visitors take a selfie in Swayambhunath, an ancient religious temple in Kathmandu Valley. The flood of tourists coming in along with the power of the new technologies are inspiring young Nepalese women and men to adopt a more “westernized“ way of life, and are finding ways to combining it with the old Nepalese culture. In Nepal arranged marriages between the same cast are the most common system, but love marriages are becoming more popular every day, especially in urban areas.