Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Local groups around Nepal are working to reform the practice of Chhaupadi, the period of confinement for women during their period and for 11 days following childbirth. During this time, a woman must live away from her family and the main house, cannot work, eat regular meals, touch items shared by the family or be touched by her family members. For washing, the woman must use a separate tap or water source.
She is considered unclean.
Sometimes the woman is confined to a filthy cowshed or other animal shelter. Sometimes she must sleep outside on the ground. These confinement shelters can be musty, moldy, dank, and dark. Many are without available light or proper air circulation. Sometimes the women sit in the midst of animal excrement and foul standing water.
For the first 11 days following birth, the child is also considered unclean and can be touched only by the mother. This practice can have dire consequences for mother or child as complications arising during the postpartum and newborn period may go unnoticed. Also, the unsanitary setting may increase the risk of contracting infectious diseases such as diarrhea or postpartum sepsis (severe infection.)
Three years ago, Nepal’s Supreme Court outlawed Chhaupadi but its practice remains widespread. Most people still believe that to violate the confinement and allow the women in the main house will bring misfortune. They believe that if a woman eats a normal diet she will get sick and if she touches a family member they will fall ill as well. If the newborn child is taken outside the people in the village believe that God will become angry and the child will be affected.
Change is happening but slowly. Women, and their husbands, of the younger generation in Nepal are declaring that they do not like the practice. One young couple, recently interviewed for the BBC, tells their story.
In Dil village, Basanti Devi's husband, Ganesh said he wants to see the Chhaupadi system abolished.
"I broke the rules," he says. "I carried our child back from the health post where he was born and then entered the main house despite my parents' protests. I do touch my child.” His wife Basanti Devi, though, still has to go to a special tap, outside the village, to wash…away from all her neighbors.
"I wanted to give normal food to my wife but I couldn't go that far against my parents' wishes. We can't change everything at once. It has to be gradual."
Devaki Shahi works for a local charity, the Rural Women's Development and Unity Centre, and travels around advocating change. She speaks from experience, having been confined after her own son's birth.
Thanks to campaigns by her and others, the actual sites of confinement are at least improving in some of the districts in Nepal. If sheds are used, they're likely to be cleaner, less likely to be shared with animals. The women get better food too.
But FEAR keeps this tradition alive.
HOPE lies with the new generation of better educated and informed Nepalis.