Banished for Bleeding: A Political Analysis of Chhaupadi

Sukirti Lohani is a final year Political Economy student. She is interested in intersectional feminism and the impact of gender on socio-economic inequality. 

[Featured Image: The central figure of the image is a small, clay ‘menstruation hut’ with a tin roof. Inside the door frame of the hut a red top is barely visible, hinting that there is a woman inside.]

Chhaupadi is a practise followed across Hindu countries, which prohibits women from entering temples and participating in many everyday activities during menstruation. This practice originates from a superstition which claims that menstruation causes women to be temporarily impure, as Hindu mythology claims that ancient deity Indra created menstruation as a means to distribute a curse. The notion that a normal bodily function such as menstruation is considered a curse may sounds absurd, however, it has a detrimental effect on the lives of women living in these countries.

In Western Nepal, women are required to remain isolated from their family, staying in a ‘menstruation hut’ made from wood or stone for the duration of their period. The huts are often sparsely furnished, meaning that women may be forced to sleep on the floor, with only a rug for comfort. Girls are prevented from attending school, resulting in many girls dropping out of education altogether as they fall behind. Huts are often poorly constructed, leaving women vulnerable to extreme temperatures, thus making them susceptible to pneumonia and dehydration. In 2010, an 11-year-old died due to contracting diarrhoea and dehydration from being kept in a menstruation hut, as her family believed they would become impure if they touched her.  The consequences of Chhaupadi are fatal, and women will continue to die until the practise is abolished. 

Chhaupadi was outlawed in Nepal in 2005, however 14 years later, women and girls are still being reported dead due to the practise. In rural areas, there appears to be insufficient numbers of law enforcement to ensure that Chhaupadi is not practised, and officials on low pay can be easily bribed. Therefore, measures must be taken to ensure that the law is enforced, otherwise women will continue to die in the name of tradition. Regardless of education, those from conservative Hindu backgrounds struggle to distance themselves from traditional Hindu practices. Even Kathmandu’s urban elite practices a form of Chhaupadi, as women are not allowed to enter temples and kitchens whilst menstruating, as food touched when a woman is on her period is considered impure. 

In Jharkhand, India, it is believed that menstrual blood is very powerful and that it can be used for black magic. Women have to be very careful of the manner in which they dispose of sanitary products, otherwise they may be accused of witchcraft. Around 400 women are murdered annually, in the belief that they are practising witchcraft and black magic. Women were blamed for a multitude of problems e.g. family illnesses and failing crops, and these beliefs were also prevalent among well-educated residents. States including Assam have outlawed witch-hunting, however in rural areas, village elders hold more weight than law enforcement, and until significant effort is invested into challenging cultural norms in rural areas, such practices will prevail. 

The taboos surrounding menstruations are literally killing women, in addition to harming many others. By treating women as ‘impure’ for a natural bodily function, they are effectively treated as second-class citizens, forced to live a restricted life for the duration of their period. Despite government action, it is evident that more community support and education is required before the practice of Chaupadi is completely eliminated, and women are treated as equals in society, regardless of the time of month. 

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