MANDANDEUPUR MUNICIPALITY, NEPAL — Binda Dhakal, 40, lies on a bed in the basement of her house.
She is alone. And she is happy.
She loves this time of the month.
Unlike some other women, Dhakal says the tradition of chaupadi, which isolates women during their menstrual cycles and forbids them from cooking food, touching family members or performing religious activities for up to seven days after menstruation, offers well-earned rest.
Dhakal says she enjoys following the rules of chaupadi. She stays in the basement. She eats from separate plates and uses a designated mattress and blanket. And while she’s resting in the basement, her husband and children cook and do the household chores.
“I cannot abandon the tradition that has been followed since an ancient time,” she says with a smile.
Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal
In 2005, the Supreme Court made the practice illegal, but the United Nations estimates that as many as 95 percent of women in rural areas still practice chaupadi. In an attempt to curb the practice, the government of Nepal passed a new law in August that adds further penalties for those who force women to practice chaupadi.
Despite the Supreme Court ruling and the new law, which imposes fines and potential jail time, Dhakal and her family members say they have no intention of stopping the practice.
The new law came about in response to outcry from human rights defenders in and outside the country after a girl in the western Dailekh district was bitten by a snake and died while isolated in a shed during her menstrual cycle.
The tradition of isolating women during menstruation traces back to ancient Hindu practices. In Nepal, an estimated 81 percent of the population is Hindu, according to the 2011 National Population and Housing Census by the Central Bureau of Statistics.
While the law introduced in August punishes any person who forces a woman to practice chaupadi, Manoj Neupane, the spokesperson of the Nepal police, says it is not clear how the government plans to enforce the law since the president has not yet signed off on it.
Bimala Khadka, a lawyer at the Forum for Women, Law and Development, says the new law carries a 3,000-Nepalese rupee ($29) fine and 3-month jail term for the offender.
But she admits it is unclear whether lawmakers plan to enforce the law en masse or to differentiate between women who are practicing chaupadi against their will and those, like Dhakal, who say they enjoy the practice.
“Not being allowed to eat, not being allowed to sleep and not being allowed to be safe are all violations of the fundamental rights of an individual,” Khadka says.
She says there have been no complaints or arrests yet.
Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal
Criminalizing a religious practice is murky territory, says Anju Chhetri, a founding member of ASMITA Women’s Publishing House, Media and Resource Organization.
“Since this tradition has its roots in religious belief and has been practiced for generations, women are compelled to follow this practice,” she says.
ASMITA published a study on the chaupadi practice in 2013, which found that in 21 of Nepal’s 75 districts the chaupadi tradition endangers the health and safety of women and their children. The study also found that 30 percent of women stay in their houses during menstruation, while 70 percent go outside to stay in sheds or huts during their monthly period.
Chhetri says there is a big difference in how women in urban and rural areas practice chaupadi.
In Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, she says many women follow the chaupadi tradition, but in less extreme ways. They do not perform puja or visit temples, but the isolation is less severe, often in another room of the home, rather than in outside sheds, says Chhetri, who does not practice chaupadi.
Lok Prasad Dhakal, Binda Dhakal’s husband, says he is happy to do the housework while his wife is in the basement for a few days each month.
“The gods get angry if we do not practice seclusion during menstruation,” he says.
Sagar Ghimire, GPJ, translated this article from Nepali.