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10 August 2017

Nepal criminalises banishing menstruating women to huts

Thirteen year old Nepalese villager Sarswati Biswokarma sits inside a 'chhaupadi house' in the village of Achham, some 800km west of Kathmandu, on 23 November 2011Image copyright
AFP

Image caption

In some parts of Nepal, women sleep in huts like these during their periods

Lawmakers in Nepal have passed a law criminalising a practice that forces women from their homes during menstruation.

Under the law anyone who makes a woman observe the custom faces a three-month jail sentence and a $30 (£23) fine.

The practice, known as chhaupadi, has been in the spotlight recently after two women died while sleeping in sheds.

But a rights activist has questioned whether the legislation can really tackle the problem.

Under the ancient Hindu practice, women who have their periods or who have just given birth are seen as impure or as bringers of bad luck, and can be forced to sleep in huts or cattle sheds.

They are banned from touching cattle and men, denied access to some foods and can be barred from toilet and washing facilities in the house, forcing them to walk long distances from their villages.

They can also be exposed to extreme cold in the winter, and young women cannot go to school.

Last month a teenage girl died after being bitten by a snake while sleeping in a hut outside her home during her period.

Her death followed that of a 15-year-old in December 2016, who suffocated after lighting a fire in the shed where she was sleeping to keep warm.

‘Root cause’

The new law, passed on Wednesday, states that menstruating women or those who have just given birth should not be “kept in chhaupadi or treated with any kind of similar discrimination or untouchable and inhuman behaviour”.

But a women’s rights activist, Pema Lhaki, told AFP news agency that the law was unenforceable because it related to a deeply entrenched belief system – and one that women played a part in perpetuating.

“They need to understand the root cause, have strategic interventions and then wait a generation,” she told the agency.

Period taboos

  • In many world religions, women are seen as impure during their period
  • They are restricted from entering places of worship and following religious rites
  • The chhaupadi tradition followed by Hindus in western Nepal is the most extreme version where women are banished outside during their monthly cycle
  • In India, women are not allowed enter some Hindu temples and Muslim mosques while menstruating but there have been court cases to overturn this
  • In southern India, a girl reaching puberty is celebrated with a party and presents
  • In the Dogon tribe in Mali, women of the village also live in a hut during their period

Chhaupadi was formally outlawed by the Nepalese government in 2005 but no penalties were put in place, and it still continues in remote western rural areas of Nepal.

A US state department human rights report, citing figures from a survey in Nepal in 2010, said 19% of women between the ages of 15 and 49 practised chhaupadi across the nation.

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