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Nepal Supreme Court verdict on chhaupadi paves the way for women's rights

A recent ruling by Nepal's Supreme Court declared the traditional practice of segregating menstruating women as illegal. What remains to be seen is how far the laws enacted by the government will go in changing social attitudes towards women, their health and their rights

Thousands of women, especially in mid-western Nepal, have to suffer the indignity of living in seclusion in makeshift shack-like dwellings during their monthly menstrual cycle. This system of segregation for reasons of 'purity', called chhaupadi, is also observed during and after childbirth when a woman is considered impure.

The court intervened after a public interest litigation was filed against the practice by a group of activists more than a year ago. The Ministry of Health is expected to conduct a study on the impact of the chhaupadi system within three months, while the Ministry of Local Government will mobilise local bodies to conduct awareness campaigns about the practice.

Women's groups are keen to see the verdict transformed into laws and implemented. They say progress can be achieved only through sexual and social equality.

The local administration, however, is largely apathetic towards the problem. "One of the reasons could be that officials of local bodies come from the same community and are not willing to cast off deep-rooted traditions quickly," says Bhakta Bahadur Balayar, a former minister from Doti district.

Even if the government takes the initiative, the shackles of ritualism are not easy to cast off, nor do the traditional elite want a change in the status quo, despite the inconvenience most women have to put up with. They appear to have internalised the 'rationale' of purity and pollution drilled into generations of women. "I have been living in the chhaupadi goth for the last 30 years during my periods. I think god wanted women to live away from the house as we become impure during that time. I can't leave the system that has been in practice for hundreds of years just on the grounds of illness and difficulties. We have to bear that," says Kali Malla from Doti district.

The chhaupadi goths are sometimes built almost a mile away from the village. Barely six feet wide and four feet high, they are far from comfortable. Poorer families build extremely dilapidated and unhygienic outhouses made from mud, stone and wood, with no windows. Worse, the women are not even allowed to use blankets and must survive on rice and dry provisions. Many babies and mothers who survive childbirth later die of pneumonia or tetanus.

Apart from the health hazards faced due to lack of hygiene and nourishment, women and young girls face threats from rapists who often stalk them during this time. The incidence of rape in the

goths is extremely high. After being violated, families see no reason to take a 'defiled' woman back.

Efforts are being made to root this problem out. Twice a week, the state-owned Radio Nepal broadcasts programmes to raise awareness about the chhaupadi system and the reproductive health rights of women. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare and Mainstreaming Gender Equity Programme (MGEP) screened a 40-minute documentary film in March this year called Chhaupadi, to highlight the problem.

Change, though, is slow with a reluctant population. In villages, families that do not observe the tradition become pariahs. As long as such misogyny remains linked with tradition, it will not be seen as a crime. If anything, the Supreme Court directive has only succeeded in bringing the issue from the backburner to the forefront.

Source:, December 14, 2005, March 29, 2005