“It was the sessions with the children and youth groups that inspired me the most. Unlike other sessions with men and women’s groups, the children were unafraid of challenging chhaupadi practices [a Hindu tradition pushing women into isolation during their menstruation period through a fear that they were unclean] given their more open outlook.” William Shankley shares his experiences of Nepal, and of the progressive nature of Nepalese youth.
My most vivid memory of my time in Nepal was the strong scent of spices ruminating around my bedroom, wafting from the open fire in the kitchen. This was where my Nepali Amma or ‘host mum’ was preparing chia (Nepali tea) at the crack of dawn. Aside from an infusion to the senses, what always startled me was the industrious nature and rigour of my Amma. By the time I had awoken, she had tidied the house, fed the chickens, swept the yard, readied the children for school and started work at preparing Dhal Bhat for the extended family. To me, she appeared to be superhuman, able to achieve more in the mornings than most people in their days. However, it was this dedication and hard-working lifestyle that opened my eyes to the gender disparity that existed in Nepal, in particular chhaupadi; a Hindu tradition pushing women into isolation during their menstruation period through a fear that they were unclean. This was magnified by the behaviour of my host dad, who in contrast spent his days sitting on the porch playing cards, drinking and socialising with his friends. So when it came to writing about a topic I felt passionate about during my time in Nepal, gender inequality with chhaupadi at its fore, painted a vivid picture of the development issues prevalent in Far Western Nepal.
In 2005 the Supreme Court of Nepal banned the practice of chhaupadi. This move seemingly endorsed the sexual and reproductive rights of women in Nepal and coincided with Article 20 of Nepal’s interim constitution which has guaranteed the right of women as well as article (2) which read
“no one shall be exploited in the name of any custom, tradition and usage or in any manner whatsoever”
– (Bhabdaree, Pandey, Rajak & Pantha, 2013).
Legally, this formalised Nepal’s commitment to achieving Millennium Development Goal (3) to “promote gender equality and empower women”. However, numerous testimonies undermined this supposed progress. They attested to the continued practice of chhaupadi at community and local level. For example, Rustad (2001) reported numerous cases of women being denied interaction with men during menstruation, with Care (2009) reporting multiple cases of fatalities of women forced to sleep in a cowshed – a practice rooted in chhaupadi ideology. What became increasingly apparent was the divergence between formal commitments to human rights for women and the reality on the ground. To fully abolish chhaupadi, whole communities would need to discuss and agree to the termination of the practice. They would need to approach the issue with medical and health knowledge rather than avoid the subject through fear of dissenting from a religious and cultural practice.
Prior to going to Nepal I had very limited knowledge of chhaupadi and its prominence amongst communities in Far Western Nepal. The International Citizen Service (ICS) programme gave me first-hand insight into gender development issues in Nepal and provided me with invaluable experience, especially given my ambition to establish a career in the development sector. I was assigned to the Doti district, a placement that encompassed six village development committees. One of the greatest challenges of the sexual and reproductive health programme was how to engage with the local communities on an issue (for example, chhaupadi) that was so ingrained in culture and tradition. Would we offend people by offering medical and health advice that demonstrated the harm caused by the chhaupadi practice? And would this limit our ability to develop a rapport with community members and run a successful Sexual and Reproductive Health programme? Thankfully, the ICS programme allowed us to spend a lot of time engaging with different community groups. Through strategic programme design and planning that considered religious and cultural sensitivities, we were able to produce information sessions, rallies and presentations which directly dealt with the detrimental practices associated with chhaupadi in a respectful manner. However, it was the sessions with the children and youth groups that inspired me the most. Unlike other sessions with men and women’s groups, the children were unafraid of challenging chhaupadi practices given their more open outlook. They understood that medical arguments rendered chhaupadi harmful, illogical and restrictive to women. Its prevalence appeared to undermine gender equality and warranted a challenge to the stigma surrounding the dialogue needed to abolish the practice. The children and youth groups provided hope that they could be the bastions of change – however long this may take.
Whilst, it is apparent that amendments to Nepal’s constitution and social policies have gone some way towards reducing inequalities through formalising the legal protection of women’s sexual and reproductive rights, this process thus far has only been established on a nominal level- a piecemeal attempt to support gender equality coinciding with achieving the MDG’s, without addressing the root causes of gender inequality across society. In parallel with the United Nation’s post-2015 agenda, focused on developing a new set of global development targets, real commitment to gender equality in Nepal is still a work in progress. It is a drive that not only requires discussion across the development sector but also between governments, women’s rights groups, non-governmental organisations and community leaders in order to prohibit harmful practices that negatively affect women and girls such as chhaupadi. Through participating in the ICS programme I have learned that community engagement and dialogue is an unparalleled force. It is vital to addressing and resolving development issues within a society as it provides local ownership of issues and solutions which enables progression to be made organically and in a culturally sensitive manner. This is paramount when challenging sensitive cultural norms that are embedded so deeply in the fabric of Nepali society.
– Bhandaree, R, Pandey, B, Rajak, M, & Panthay, P., 2013. Chhaupadi: victimizing women of Nepal. In: Second international conference of the South Asian Society of criminology and victimology.Kamanakinani, Tamil Nadu, India 11-13 Jan 2013. See more at: http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/30456926/SASCV2013_proceedings.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIR6FSIMDFXPEERSA&Expires=1373645371&Signature=4Xx06cUcoi2Jq%2Fb8NkauN1JtG0M%3D&response-content-disposition=inline#page=157
– Care., 2009. Chaupadi: pushing women into isolation – Nepal. Care [online] Last updated 6th December 2010. Available at: http://www.careinternational.org.uk/news-and-press/latest-news-features/1598-chaupadi-pushing-women-into-isolation-nepal-
– Gaestal, A., 2013. Nepal: chaupadi, culture and violence against women. Women Deliver [online] (Last updated 15:32 12th July 2013). Available at: http://www.womendeliver.org/updates/entry/nepal-chaupadi-culture-and-violence-against-women
– Rustad, H., 2013. Nepalese menstruation tradition dies hard. The Globe and Mail. Last updated April 30 2013. Available at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/nepalese-menstruation-tradition-dies-hard/article11644844/
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