In July, 18-year-old Tulasi Shahi died after a snake bit her while she slept in a shed where she had been banished – because she was menstruating. The shed, unlike her home, was open to snakes and other animals.
Her death was yet another from chaupadi, a Nepali practice banishing menstruating women and girls from their homes, stigmatizing and isolating them, pushing them out of education, and sometimes costing their lives.
On August 9, Nepal lawmakers made it a crime to force a woman or girl out of the house during menstruation. Those convicted could face three months imprisonment plus a fine.
Chaupadi is practiced by up to 95 percent of families in some parts of western and mid-western Nepal, fuelled by the mistaken belief that menstruating women and girls are “unclean.” They are forbidden from touching or mingling with other people, and have to stay outside the family home, usually in a hut or shed of the type in which Tulasi was bitten.
Deaths from chaupadi occur from fire and smoke inhalation, as women struggle to stay warm in the huts during Nepal’s harsh winters, and from animal attacks. But other destructive consequences of chaupadi are far more widespread. The stigma discourages girls from attending school during menstruation. Many schools also lack proper toilets to allow them to manage hygiene.
When Human Rights Watch researched child marriage in Nepal, we heard from girls who missed school during menstruation. Girls fell behind, sometimes leaving school as a result. In Nepal, where 37 percent of girls marry before age 18, leaving school often leads to marriage.
The new law is a positive sign. But in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled the practice was illegal, and yet it continues.
For real change, the government should educate communities, debunk myths about menstruating women, and help develop social norms that stigmatize continued practice of chaupadi. The government’s network of village-based health volunteers is an excellent resource for this task.
The government should also do more to ensure that people have access to water and toilets. Thirty-eight percent of Nepalis are without a toilet, and 15 percent are without a water supply. This week’s new law is a start, but the Nepal government should do much more.