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Shining a light on menstrual taboos

Menstrual stigma in Nepal excludes girls and women from society and puts lives in danger. Sarah Ditum reports on a VSO-supported programme helping overcome this cruel tradition.

A period can be uncomfortable, inconvenient and sometimes embarrassing, but it’s a routine part of life for women of reproductive age. However, for 13-year-old Anisha, it could also have interrupted her education, with disastrous consequences. That’s because Anisha lives in Nepal, where a social practice often known as chaupadi – an extreme form of menstruation stigma – is widely observed among Hindu women.

The belief that menstruation is “unclean” keeps girls out of school, leaves women vulnerable to ill health and male violence, and even kills. It contributes to silence and secrecy around periods that has a high cost in terms of personal hygiene: ironically, the main thing that makes menstruation “dirty” is the fear of its being public. Contact with a menstruating woman or girl is believed to cause disease in both humans and livestock. If she so much as drinks milk, the buffalo it came from will grow unwell and dry up. If she touches a plant, it will wither. Her mere presence could make pickles go bad. If she enters a temple, or even prays, the enraged gods might send terrible punishments.

The extent to which chaupadi is followed varies by region, caste and family – the practice is most extreme in the far and mid-western parts of Nepal - but it’s common for a menstruating woman to be kept away from the family home and made to sleep in a small, unheated hut. She might be permitted to eat nothing but rice.

13-year-old Anisha Sharma took part in the VSO Sisters for Sistsers mentoring project. ©Priyanka Budhathoki and Bed Prasad Dangi

Anisha smiling and ready to learn.

Anisha comes across as a relaxed, assured young woman, yet if her parents practised chaupadi this confidence would quickly erode. Girls forced to observe menstrual taboos can miss school for at least four days a month. Even when they are able to attend, tiredness and hunger from following the customs at home can mean that they’re unable to concentrate fully on lessons. That’s in addition to the fatigue and abdominal pain that are among the typical physical effects of a period, and the girls’ distracting anxiety about male classmates finding out.

All this contributes to a gender gap in education that means literacy is significantly higher for men than women. Statistics vary, but according to the World Bank approved Nepal Living Standards Survey, last taken in 2011, 71.6 per cent of men are literate as opposed to 44.5 per cent of women. Because education is a key driver in combating inequality, this means that the next generation of girls is entrenched in the same cycle of exclusion and taboo.

Menstrual stigma is dangerous as well as degrading. A woman might be considered untouchable during her period, but that won’t protect her from snakebites or from men who take advantage of her isolation to commit rape. In winter the huts are cold and, because even textiles might be polluted by the touch of a menstruating woman, she might be left harshly exposed to the elements. “During winter it is very difficult,” said one Nepalese woman quoted in a WaterAid report. “We have to sleep alone and there are not enough warm clothes at night. Many times I have to ask father for a quilt.”

In 2013, 15-year-old Sharmila Bhul died alone in an unventilated room just 1 metre wide during chaupadi. She had been determined not to fall behind on her study: she was found with her school books beside her. Her father, while devastated, insisted that the ritual was still necessary. “It is impure if the daughter sleeps in the house,” he told a reporter from the Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail. “The system will be disturbed and will ultimately affect the house and her future house.” Although Sharmila’s story made headlines, hers is not an isolated case. In response to chaupadi’s manifest harms, the Nepalese supreme court banned the practice in 2005, yet attitudes like those of Sharmila’s father mean it persists, especially in the west of the country: 90 per cent of women in the district of Achham continue to observe it.

It’s not just superstition that harms menstruating girls and women. There are also practical issues that could have denied Anisha her future, specifically a lack of adequate toilets and sanitary items – a problem that pervades the developing world. When toilets are located off-site, or don’t have locks, or have no water supply, it’s impossible for girls to wash themselves discreetly at school. Many prefer to stay at home: more than half of girls in Nepal reported missing school during their period, and the main reason given was lack of privacy. It doesn’t help that the stigma of talking about periods means many girls are simply denied basic knowledge about menstruation, and receive little guidance about what to expect and how to take care of themselves.

VSO volunteer training big sisters on making a sanitary pad. ©VSO/Suraj Shakya

A VSO volunteer trains Big Sisters on how to make a sanitary pad.

This issue is exacerbated by unsuitable and unhygienic pads and towels. Because disposable pads are expensive and schools generally don’t have facilities for getting rid of them, most girls use a washable cloth to absorb menstrual blood – sometimes simply a rag, which is liable to leak. Menstrual cloths need to be disinfected by being washed in clean water with soap and then dried in direct sunlight. But if there’s no clean water and no soap, bacteria can thrive. And because of the shame around menstruation, girls and women often hide their pads under other garments to dry, inadvertently protecting the microorganisms that cause disease. The result is that women and girls contract painful urinary, vaginal and perineal infections, occasionally leading to fatal complications such as toxic shock syndrome.

Period stigma kills women and girls, and even when it doesn’t take lives it pushes women out of their homes, out of education and into a position of inferiority. But Anisha is lucky. Her father is a teacher and – along with her mother – has bravely taken the stance that it is wrong that girls should interrupt their education because of tradition. In addition to this, Anisha is  part of a scheme set up by VSO that is making a huge difference.

The Sisters for Sisters (SfS) mentoring project, supported by VSO Nepal, connects marginalised girls (“little sisters”) with “big sisters” who have successfully completed school, so can act as role models and advisers. It works: for those in the programme, attendance increased from 52 per cent to 74 per cent. And one of the key concerns of SfS is educating girls and young women about menstruation and hygiene.

In SfS training, for example, girls can learn to make their own safe, absorbent and reusable sanitary towels using old cloth, padding and (importantly, because a sanitary towel works only when it’s in the right place) a popper to keep it fixed. The instructions include that critical advice about washing and drying in sunlight to kill bacteria. And period education has a powerful side-effect: by letting light in on the subject of menstruation, it helps to kill the shame that causes so much damage. Periods become normal and stop being a reason for girls to fall behind at school.

Sumitra Thapa Ksheetri, a Big Sister in Sisters for Sisters program participating in making Sanitary Pads workshop mentored by VSO volunteer. ©VSO/Suraj Shakya

Big Sisters snip and sew their way to sustainable sanitation in Nepal.

As Januka Tapa Mager, who works on the SfS programme, says: “Every girl has a right to quality education and should have the same opportunities as the boys.” The advantages that Anisha gained from being a little sister – which provided a crucial network of support outside the home - were added to by the fact that her parents refused to isolate her from her family during her period. That meant that, as well as continuing to attend classes, Anisha didn’t suffer the dangers and disruptions inflicted on so many other girls and women. Now, she’s a role model to her friends, who can look to her for proof that having your period doesn’t make you untouchable, unclean or unworthy of education. It’s simply a normal part of being a girl.

Read more about VSO's projects with girls in Nepal and listen to volunteer Ann Marcer talk about her experiences in the country. Read about VSO's latest work in gender equality around the world.