International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8 all around the world, and this year the theme is “Choose to Challenge”, calling on all of us to be proactive about challenging gender norms and inequality that often feel “normal” or impossible to change. An example of this kind of norm is our avoidance of the topic of menstruation. Here is the truth: approximately half of the people living on this planet shed up to 80ml of uterine lining (BLOOD) through their vaginas every 28 days on average. This has happened since the beginning of human history, and will continue well into the foreseeable future. And yet, civilizations around the world have stigmatized this natural and critical anatomical process, telling girls and women that their menstrual blood is not only dirty but shameful.
Although women all over the world can relate to this experience, in Nepal it is taken to an extreme. Menstruating women are considered so dirty and unclean that they are made to sleep outside their homes in small shacks that are often exposed to the elements, ostracized from their family until their periods are over. It is not only dehumanizing but dangerous: girls and women die every year from smoke-inhalation from fires they light to stay warm and snake bites or mosquito-borne illnesses contracted while staying in the huts. This practice has the particular goal of keeping men safe: it is believed that if a menstruating woman touches, or even cooks for a man, he will become ill. This belief and practice is known as Chhaupadi, and it happens even today in many homes of Nepal to some degree. In urban Kathmandu you are unlikely to see a Chhaupadi hut, but women of all socioeconomic backgrounds will still refrain from cooking food for their male family members while they are menstruating. It is a deeply-seeded belief that menstruation is dirty, and it takes more than a good education to overcome.
The positive news is that Nepali women are fighting to change attitudes about menstruation and women’s bodies and sexuality in general. Chhaupadi huts are no longer legal although there is little to no enforcement of this law in remote areas (most areas of Nepal are remote). The government also now makes a point of celebrating Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28 to promote healthier attitudes about menstruation. A new generation of activists not only raise awareness of the issue with public demonstrations, like riding their bicycles through the streets with signs, they also take it upon themselves to train and educate young people on reproductive health. This includes teaching teenage boys about women’s reproductive health, which de-mystifies and destigmatizes the issues.
In the past, access to menstrual hygiene products was impossible for many, and menstruating women and girls were unable to carry on their regular activities. A significant movement has appeared in Nepal to produce and distribute reusable sanitary pads made from cloth. These can be easily attached to underwear, washed and re-used many times, and are much more affordable than disposable products (not to mention much more environmentally friendly!) Access to these pads has allowed girls and young women to keep going to school and university classes, to go to work places, and to participate in sports through every week of the month. They are helping to make a transformative change in Nepali social life, and girls and young women are ready to take advantage of increased freedom.
So this year on International Women’s Day, we salute all the girls and women of Nepal who are choosing to challenge a centuries-old belief even though it is difficult and even though their families might disapprove.