Hindu ritual forces Nepali women into monthly exile

Annabel SYMINGTON
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Nepalese women Pabitra Giri (L) and Yum Kumari Giri sit by a fire as they live in a Chhaupadi hut during their menstruation period, in Surkhet District, some 520 km west of Kathmandu

The small thatched hut in western Nepal has no walls to keep out the cold. Inside is a raised platform where Pabitra Giri sleeps during her period, banished from her home by a centuries-old Hindu ritual.

Below the hut, known as a chhau goth, Giri lights a small fire to keep her warm. The smoke rises up to the small cramped area where she sleeps, making her eyes water.

"We think that if we don't follow chhaupadi bad things will happen and if we do, it (the gods) will favour us. I feel it does good, so I follow it during my periods," Giri, 23, explained.

"Now I am used to it. I used to be afraid in the beginning because I was away from my family during dark nights and the place is like this," Giri said gesturing around her.

The practice is linked to Hinduism and considers women untouchable when they menstruate.

They are banished from the home -- barred from touching food, religious icons, cattle and men -- and forced into a monthly exile sleeping in basic huts.

In some areas, women are also made to spend up to a month in the chhau goth after they have given birth.

Two women recently died while following chhaupadi -- one of smoke inhalation after she lit a fire for warmth, while the other death is unexplained. These incidents have spurred fresh impetus to end the practice.

Chhaupadi was banned a decade ago, but new legislation currently before parliament will criminalise the practice, making it an imprisonable offence to force women to follow the ritual.

"Women were accepting chhaupadi as tradition. After defining chhaupadi an offence by law the tradition will be discouraged saving rights and lives of many women," Krishna Bhakta Pokhrel, a lawmaker pushing the bill, told AFP.

- For the gods -

But previous attempts to stop chhaupadi have failed to address the deep superstitious beliefs that underpin it.

Even in the capital Kathmandu, three in four homes practise some form of restriction on women during their periods, usually banning them from the kitchen and prayer room, said Pema Lhaki, a women's right activist who has campaigned for years to end chhaupadi.

Most attempts to end the ritual have focused on destroying the chhau goths but that hasn't stopped women being banned from their homes -- instead, in some areas, it has seen women forced to sleep in even more rudimentary huts or even outside, Lhaki said.

"Until we make the woman herself make the decision, the destruction of menstrual huts is more for external purposes. The menstrual huts should remain. Success is when they remain but they don't go into them," she said, accusing the government of encouraging the chhau goth to be destroyed to meet quotas set by international donors.

In a village a few miles from where Giri lives, Khagisara Regmi is considering building a chhau goth.

After her husband died eight years ago, the 40-year-old found it too difficult to follow chhaupadi -- which would bar her from cooking or touching her son when she was menstruating -- while bringing up her four young children.

But a few years ago, her only son started having fits. When a nearby hospital failed to cure them, Regmi turned to the local shaman who told her that her son's seizures where because she hadn't followed the ancient ritual.

"Because I didn't observe purity the gods were displeased. It wasn't favourable for my son," she said.

It is often the village shamans -- who fill a void left by woefully poor medical services in rural Nepal -- and the elderly who are the guardians of the ritual.

Sabitra Giri, 70, defiantly told AFP that the Maoists during Nepal's brutal civil war tried to end chhaupadi as part of an anti-religion drive -- but failed.

"You can cut me but while I'm alive this practice will continue," she said.

At a house on the edge of the village, shaman Keshar Giri, clad head to toe in white, explained that many illnesses were caused by women not following chhaupadi.

He often counselled women to follow the ritual if they came to him with problems, he said.

"It is not about individuals but the gods that we worship who ask women to not be near for those few days," he said.

"Its for the sake of the gods."