Recently, Nepal has received a lot of attention from the international community due to a New York Times article on Chhaupadi – the practice of isolating menstruating women and girls – and social taboos around menstruation. As part of the Fertility Awareness for Community Transformation (FACT) Project, the Institute for Reproductive Health (IRH), at Georgetown University is undertaking the Pragati intervention in Nepal. Pragati aims to increase fertility awareness and to change social norms that reflect negative attitudes about menstruation and lead to behaviors that are harmful to women. In this three-part blog series, three IRH colleagues – Ojashwi Pathak, Shwetha Srinivasan, and Sarah Thompson – explore menstruation norms through their personal experiences as women and through qualitative data analysis of such taboos in Nepali society. The authors reflect on the current state of menstruation-related norms, discuss whether these norms are changing in Nepal, and elucidate what can be done in the future by practitioners and researchers to destigmatize menstruation.
When I first got my period, my aunt immediately took me inside my room. “You are going to stay in this room for the next few days,” she said. “You are not going to see or touch the male members of the family. They are not even supposed to hear your voice. If you need something, just wait until we come and check in on you.” I was 13 years old and growing up in a Brahmin household in Kathmandu. I was utterly confused and it felt like a punishment. I decided to negotiate the terms and conditions with my grandmother, my aunt, and my mother because I did not want to be locked in one room for so many days.
After some deliberation, they decided that I could go to school, but for some reason I was told not to look at the sun (ridiculous, I know!). I was told to stay in my classroom and not to touch my male classmates. This was difficult, as I shared a desk with a boy. At home, I could come outside of my room, but had to quickly return to it when the male members came home. My grandmother just commented, “We are allowing you to do most things. Why can’t you just follow these simple restrictions? During my time, I had to spend more than a week in a cow-shed. We are asking very little of you. I know you are educated but that does not mean you will disrespect our traditions.” I wasn’t sure whether she was trying to make me feel better or worse.
I succumbed to my family’s requests and felt guilty for their compromises. My restrictions culminated several days after my first period began, when I was not allowed to attend the rice feeding ceremony for my youngest cousin. According to custom, my menstruation would contaminate such a holy occasion. In the following days, some relatives asked why I missed the ceremony, which made me uncomfortable and forced me to come up with alternative reasons for my absence.
During successive periods, the restrictions were similar and always included a ritualistic washing of clothes and bedding on the fourth day. When this was finished, I sprinkled holy water on anything I touched that couldn’t be washed. By day five, I could go to temple and touch any of the worship idols. I did not believe in these traditions anyway, but I continued on as any conscientious teenager who feared the wrath of god and moreover the wrath of her family members.
I am now 25 years old and live in the US. When I go back home, I adhere to the menstruation restrictions, but wonder how some Nepali women are able to continue to be isolated in more serious ways, miss weeks of school, and manage the social stigma of this natural process. I often find myself asking:
Why do we accept norms that we know are outdated, irrelevant, and harmful?
Historically, menstrual norms and taboos all over the world have been held in place by gender roles and social expectations of women and men. In fact, some argue that menstruation taboos have long been symbolic of women’s status in a community. These norms are intricately embedded in the cultural and religious aspect of the community. In Nepal, for example, Chhaupadi (which forces women to live in unsanitary cattle sheds or a makeshift huts), is practiced specifically in the Hindu Brahmin and Chhetri community of the Far-West region. A recent New York Times article explains that even educated women of the community follow this tradition. Underlying this adherence may be the expectation of women to embody four crucial virtues: faithfulness, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. While female goddesses in Hinduism symbolize strength and power, women in Nepal are widely believed to be problematic. A typical woman’s inability ensure purity by touching a man or holy idol/water during menstruation is believed to cause disaster within the community.
The pressure to maintain/sustain purity is so high that women find it easier behave according to the community norms and expectations, as described in social normative theories. In a 2017 article, Prakash Upadhyay suggests that there are two reasons for accepting norms that an individual may not agree with: fear of sanctions – negative reactions or backlash from others in the community – and valuing other people’s approval. Research conducted in multiple developing countries has found that the desire to “belong” easily triumphs personal attitudes against such harmful menstruation practices.
This dichotomy often leaves me conflicted during my visits to Nepal. Although I understand that menstruation is natural for women, I still adhere to these traditional restrictions to avoid disappointing or embarrassing my family. Even after living in the US for more than 6 years, earning a MA in Political Science, and thinking of myself as a progressive thinker, I still feel this conflict.
Will these norms change?
Maybe. It is not easy to change norms that are deeply rooted in religious traditions, but we are learning that it is not impossible. Harmful norms may be chipped away before disappearing completely. Nepal is one such case where advocacy and programming have been playing a pivotal role in changing such norms.
The next post in this series will highlight one innovative intervention – Pragati – which was implemented in five districts of Nepal under the FACT Project by the Institute for Reproductive Health and Save the Children. Through nine different games that are geared towards raising fertility awareness and encouraging reflection about social and gender norms, Pragati is questioning the status quo, engendering conversations about menstruation, and normalizing discussion about periods among women and men of all ages. The post will highlight what we have learned along the way based on rich qualitative data collected from community members, implementers, and service providers.