How being on your period can be 'like prison' for Nepalese women

A Nepalese girl forced to stay in her room for 12 days after she got her first period. Photo credit: our Observer.
A Nepalese girl forced to stay in her room for 12 days after she got her first period. Photo credit: our Observer.

In Nepal, menstruating women are considered impure, and as a result have to observe harsh religious customs. When girls get their first period, they often have to spend up to twelve days isolated from their family, sometimes in cattle sheds or dilapidated huts far from their village. Our Observer in the country told us about the rules women still have to follow, which vary in their severity – despite the fact that some elements of the practice are now outlawed.

In Nepalese Hindu tradition, when women have their period, they have to abide by certain rules. They are not allowed to touch food, so their meals have to be brought to them; they are not allowed to go to the temple, to touch living things, and are even forbidden from interacting with members of the opposite sex. According to religious superstition, menstruating women pollute temples if they enter them; if they touch a tree, that tree will never bear fruit; if they touch a cow, the cow will never give milk; if they touch a man, he will die.

Tradition varies according to area and local custom. In the bigger cities like Kathmandu, the rules will seem relatively relaxed compared to the draconian rules for menstruating women in rural areas. In a middle-class family in Kathmandu, for example, a woman may be isolated in her bedroom for the duration of her period, and forced to stay there by her parents who abide by these religious superstitions. In remoter, more rural parts of Nepal, she can be banished to a makeshift hut or shed for livestock.

The custom will soon be illegal

In 2005, the Nepalese government had actually outlawed the practice of sending women to live in sheds during their period, but with no enforcement or threat of punishment, the custom continued.

And it can have dangerous repercussions – and has even claimed lives. In January this year, a 21-year-old Nepalese woman died in an outdoor shed to which she had been banished because she was menstruating. It is thought that she died from smoke inhalation after lighting a fire to keep warm in the poorly ventilated hut. In July 2017, another young woman died after she was bitten by a snake when she was forced to stay in an outdoor hut.

“All you can do is lie in bed”

Jamuna Bhandari, a 26-year-old Nepalese woman, was brought up a Hindu in Kathmandu. She started her period at 13, and followed all of the traditional Hindu rules around women having periods, before converting to Christianity at the age of 16.

The rules you have to follow start as soon as you get your first period. In the village, when a girl starts her period she has to spend around 12 days in a particular house, separate from her family. She’s not allowed to be in the same house with men because she is “impure”, even if they are her family. She can’t speak to or even see her brother, her father, or a male cousin.

The first time a girl gets her period, she gets sent to this hut. It has just one room and very little windows. If other girls have their periods at the same time, they are in the huts together – otherwise, she stays there alone. The girls aren’t allowed to see the sun. They’re not allowed contact with anyone but each other. Their mothers come and leave food for them and clean the hut.

'You are beaten if you refuse'

The second or third time they have their period, they don’t have to go to this building, but they still have to stay in their rooms for five days. They’re not allowed to cook, or to touch water sources. Everything is given to them. They’re not allowed to touch things that other people will touch. They’re especially not allowed to go into the puja room [the religious ritual area of the house].

When women are a bit older, they don’t have to stay isolated for as long. It’s reduced to about three days. If they have a child, even if they are young, they count as an older woman.

In the village it is more strict. In Kathmandu there are officially the same rules but you don’t have to follow all of them.

'Sometimes I would cry out of boredom'

When I got my first period I was in Kathmandu at my cousin’s house, and there weren’t any men in the house. I wasn’t with my family in the village. I had to stay in my room for seven days.

I was hungry and wasn’t able to cook for myself. I wasn’t happy. But I was cheating the rules a lot. If no one was in the house, sometimes I would cook. But if someone came back and found me cooking, I would be in trouble.

It’s not possible to refuse to follow these customs. You will get beaten a lot by your family if you refuse.

You are not allowed to touch plants or anything that is alive, because they tell you you will make it die. I was really naughty, and I used to put my arm out of the window and touch the plant outside and think to myself, ‘Look, it’s not dying, it’s fine’.

When a girl finishes her period she has to do puja [a kind of cleansing ritual]. When she has finished, though, she does this ritual with the members of her family, and they sprinkle purified water or cow urine throughout the house and on anything she’s touched. This means she’s able to leave her room. Her father might give her clothes or money or a gift of some kind.

No one actually likes doing this. It’s frustrating. I was so angry all the time. It’s so boring, too. Sometimes I would cry out of boredom. All you can do is lie in bed. You’re not allowed to leave the room. It’s like prison.

While FRANCE 24 was researching this article, Jamuna’s 12-year-old neighbour, Purnika, had her first period. She had to stay inside her bedroom in the family house in Kathmandu for 12 days, using an adjoining bathroom to wash and go to the toilet.

Purnika curled up in bed in her room, on the 12th day of being isolated there. Photo credit: our Observer.

Purnika's sparsely furnished bedroom. Photo credit: our Observer.

Curtains have to cover the window, as girls on their periods are not allowed to look at the sun. Photo credit: our Observer.

Purnika is fortunate to have an adjoining bathroom (the door in the corner). For girls in the villages, they often have to go out far away from the village into the fields to wash, urinate and defecate - leaving them vulnerable to rape, assault, and wild animals. Photo credit: our Observer.

On the 13th day, she was allowed to come out of the room, and her family performed a traditional puja (ritual), to celebrate her transition to womanhood. As part of this ceremony, she was presented to all of the members of the household, the male family members first. The family also gave her presents, and ate a celebratory meal together with extended family members. The family was proud of their tradition, viewing it as a joyous occasion. This illustrates how varied Nepalese menstruation customs can be.

>> READ MORE ON THE OBSERVERS: In India, some women use soil and ash to soak up periods

In contrast to how the tradition plays out in a more modern, urban zone, Jamuna explained that she has friends who are part of the Newar caste, one of the stricter castes in terms of conforming to customs around menstruation. She told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that in the village that she comes from, Newari girls would be sent to a hut far away from the village during their periods.

In August 2017, Nepal criminalised it, slapping a jail sentence and a fine on anyone who forces a woman to leave her home because she is menstruating. It is set to come into effect in August this year. When FRANCE 24 told Jamuna that there was an official ban on the practice of isolating women in huts, she was surprised as she knows it still happens in rural villages.

Nepal is the poorest country in South Asia. World Bank data from 2010 (the most recent available) shows that 25.5% of the population lives below the poverty line. A 2010 Nepali government survey cited in a US State Department report found that 19% of women in the country aged between 15 and 49 practised the custom of isolation during menstruation, and that this percentage rose to 50% in poorer, more remote, rural areas to the west of the country.

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Local and international NGOs and other organisations have been campaigning against the custom and trying to educate communities about the dangers of isolating women in huts, but the practice is so closely tied to superstition and the idea that menstruating women bring bad luck to a household that it is very difficult to stamp out. Some organisations have gone as far as to demolish huts that were built for this purpose – but activists noticed that destroyed sheds have been rebuilt.

This article was written by Catherine Bennett (cfbennett2).