The Loss and Reaffirmation of Femininity in Modern Nepalese Society
Spanish photographer Maria Contreras Coll chronicles the delicate moment of puberty and womanhood for Nepalese girls and women still suffering with the stigma of a culture that isolates and judges them.
The makeshift huts vary in design and material. The dwellings give just enough shelter to endure inclement weather and offer little ventilation. Yet, all serve the same purpose - to isolate menstruating women, dubbed impure for the sole reason of having their period - an ancient Hindu practice known in western Nepal as Chhaupadi Partha.
Some huts are mud shelters, cramped cells accessible only by a wooden slide. Menstruating women are brought here for a week or more of each month throughout their entire lives. Other times they remain in their households, relegated to the ground floor, where they must sleep with the cattle. During rain season, snakes might enter.
With Journey to Impurity, Spanish photographer Maria Contreras Coll set out to capture the misery endured routinely by Nepalese women in rural areas - a touching visual documentation of a centuries-old tradition still common in local villages like those in Achham and Baitadi districts, where Hinduism is largely observed.
In these villages, neighbors nurse the quarantined women, filling their food bowls and glasses, which have been left outside to prevent physical contact, since menstruating women are believed to bring misfortune upon anyone or anything they touch; their impurity leads harvest to waste and animals to illness. During their periods, they are banned from temples, schools and homes. Closeness is strictly avoided.
The practice is perilous for women. Bad hygienic conditions and the lack of heat and ventilation expose them to risks of pneumonia and dehydration; a fire kindled for heat can lead to asphyxiation; they can fall prey to ill-intentioned offenders, or be bitten by spiders and snakes. Since 2005, the Nepalese Supreme Court has outlawed Chhaupadi, but the culture has been slow to change. In 2017, Nepal passed a law that anyone who forced menstruating women into exile would be fined 3,000 Nepalese rupees (about $30) or jailed for up to three months.
Traditions do not fade in a day, but the situation is slowly shifting. During her one-year stay in the country, Contreras Coll met many driven activists who are making a difference, defending women’s rights and educating the population. Radha Paudel, who advocates against Chhaupadi, met Contreras Coll in Kathmandu. Through her foundation, and working with other activists, awareness programs have been started, providing lectures on menstruation, workshops on hygiene, information on biodegradable sanitary pads, and helping to make the entire population - men included - more familiar with these issues.
Still many people from rural areas - especially elders, healers, husbands, and priests - defend the traditional practice. A woman whom Contreras Coll met opposed her 14-year-old granddaughter’s refusal to stay confined in the hut. “We've been doing this for so many generations,” Contreras Coll recalls the grandmother saying. “If we stop doing this, something bad is going to happen,’’ the woman continued. “It's their reality,” Contreras Coll observes.
But for the 14-year-old granddaughter, Surekha, memories are tainted by anguish. She was one of the first girls whom Contreras Coll met, her project beginning with teens having their menarche. “I cannot believe I will have to do this all my life,” the girl said.
Maria Contreras Coll is a documentary photographer and photojournalist from Barcelona, Spain. She is interested in gender issues and how women are redefining structures and practices in different cultures, religions, and countries. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.
This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.