Action needed to end menstruation huts

It’s a taboo. A woman bleeding for 5 days a month for almost 37 years of her life is a taboo. The stains meant to be never visible, sanitary napkins and tampons hidden away in newspapers because, oh my, they’re sinful, atrocious objects not meant for decent human eyes, a topic to be whispered about.

Often associated with impurity in the sub-continent, menstruation is stigmatized. Women are often kept out of communal cooking and eating places when they are menstruating and barred from entering temples. Because, of course, the extremely natural process of shedding uterus lining is utterly disgusting and impure.

This gets even better. Imagine your knees bleeding and, as a solution, you are kicked out of your house to live in a god-forsaken hut with no ventilation or lighting. Absurd, right? That wouldn’t happen in a sane world. But in Nepal, it does, only if it is vaginal blood. It even has a term for it — chaupadi pratha. Chaupadi pratha is a tradition practiced for centuries that banishes females during their menstruation period from the house. Despite a ban being imposed by the Supreme Court on the chaupadi tradition in 2005, it is a practice that is still heavily widespread in the mid and western regions of Nepal.

In 2019, when we are striving for the equality that is long overdue, women are dying in Nepal.  Yes, even now. A 21-year-old Nepali woman died of suffocation in a windowless “menstruation hut,” basically a cattle shed after she lit a fire to keep warm, on February 4. So did Amba Bohara and her two young sons on January 9.  These deaths were tragic, unnecessary and utterly preventable, and there cannot be any justifications — religious, cultural, moral — for such practices.

This just is not limited to the borders of Nepal, terrifyingly. The cyclone Gaja that hit Tamil Nadu in November 2018 brought about the death of a 14-year-old girl who had been forced to sleep separately in a hut because she committed the crime of menstruating.

And if you think it ends here, you’re in for a surprise. India had a ban on girls and women of menstruating age from entering a prominent Hindu temple in southern Kerala state that the Supreme Court recently overturned, upholding rights to equality of worship. The first women to officially enter the temple after the upliftment were 40-year-old law professor Bindu and 39-year-old government supplies officer Kanakadurga, on Jan 2.

A small step towards equality. An event to be celebrated, right? Guess what happened instead. Outraged male protesters surrounding the temple chased and abused the women, and threatened to beat them up. After Bindu and Kanakadurga entered, the head priest shut the temple doors for an hour-long “purification ceremony.” Across Kerala, mobs claiming to be offended devotees went on a rampage, damaging buses, burning effigies and throwing stones and crude bombs in the streets. One man died, and hundreds were injured.

Even Nepal’s government enacted a law aimed at stopping the practice of chaupadi in 2017 according to which, any family member who forces a woman to practice menstrual isolation can be punished with a jail sentence of 3 months and/or a fine of 3,000 rupees (about $30). But this has made very little impact because of the lack of education and awareness in western Nepal is a very weak weapon against centuries of tradition.

The irony is, the stigma against menstruation is not just promoted by men. Even women in the rural parts who have been deprived of education and awareness tend to support these with religious justifications. What astounded me was, some women view chaupadi pratha as a form of recess from all the responsibilities of the household they have to carry on their shoulders all year long, rather than seeing it for what it truly is (banishment, unfairness, patriarchal oppression). They see it as five days of not being reprimanded for the lack of salt in curry and the dust on the window panes. What develops this attitude in women is simply the lack of knowledge that they deserve better.

Fortunately, the laws support the causes in abolishing taboo against menstruation, but the problem is, the laws have very little to no effect on the mentalities of people. The solutions, I believe, lie in programs and initiatives that empower women to promote their ability to take on their rightful place in society, and to embrace the many capacities and productive and creative resources they represent. This includes keeping girls – and boys – in school for longer, and improving the quality of their curriculum and their ability to question and to think for themselves. It involves providing them with age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education which helps them to understand the onset of puberty and the natural processes they will experience.

But how can we, as the young generation, contribute to making life for women a little better? Well, at Woodstock, we have been provided with various opportunities to do so. Woodstock students work with three different groups of women in nearby villages three days a week. They make sanitary pads on campus and these are distributed within the communities in which they work.  The exercise of the distribution of the pads opens doors to easy communication between Woodstock students and the girls/women in the particular community. After building a comfortable relationship, Woodstock students who are engaged in this project give lessons on the development of the reproductive system of women, says Mrs. Sanjaya Mark. Diagrams, pictures and videos are used for their lessons and discussions are an integral part of the learning. This a small step taken towards solving a massive issue but if these lessons are passed on to more and more women gradually, the effect will be enormous.

Menstruation, a natural biological phenomenon common to most females that marks the beginning of womanhood, is inextricably linked to the sustainability of mankind. But ironically enough, it is deemed as something to be ashamed of, something ugly, something to hide away, something to talk about only in hushed voices. In the worst scenario, it also becomes something to die for. Not only we should know this ourselves, we should take the initiative to spread the word to people around us who vilify menstruation.

And a process that is directly linked with creating life on this planet should not be the reason women die. Period.

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