Rural Nepal's women, burdened by menstrual taboos, find solace in the forest

Neerja Deodhar

In 2011, an 11-year-old Nepal girl died of diarrhea and dehydration in a shed; her family and neighbours refused to take her to a hospital. In 2016, another teenage Nepali girl died of a snake bite that she endured in her uncle's shed. In January this year, a Nepali woman and her two children died in a fire in a secluded hut; she had lit this fire to keep the family warm in the bitter cold of winter. Many other women in the country have reportedly died due to inhaling smoke emanating from fires lit inside sheds, or due to extreme cold. Most of these women died all alone.

They're all victims of chhaupadi, a taboo prevalent in West Nepal whereby menstruating women are sequestered away from the family home (usually in a bare-bones shed or hut) and prohibited from participating in normal activities, because their touch and presence is considered impure. They are denied nutritious foods like cow's milk, meat and fruit. Since they cannot be at home, they often engage in hard manual labour in the fields or work like collecting firewood or digging, which only takes a bigger toll on their health. The Himalayan Times reports that as many as 15 girls have died in two districts alone, over the course of 13 years, due to this practice.

Chhaupadi was outlawed in 2005 by the Supreme Court and in 2017, a law punishing people who force women into exile was put into place. Those who broke this law could be jailed for three months or would have to pay a fine of 3,000 Nepalese rupees. A year later, it was reported that in West Nepal, district governments had begun denying state support services to those who were still practising chhaupadi, to dissuade them.

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The photographs that constitute Nepali photographer Uma Bista's project Our Songs from the Forest, shot in Achham district (and specifically in the village of Oligaun), are a testament to how the taboo continues to exist.

But she goes beyond its documentation, exploring the ways in which young women are rebelling against custom and how they find solace in the forest.

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Before setting off for Achham, Bista considered that perhaps her project should focus on the change that has occurred in the practice of chhaupadi over the decades. Upon reaching the village, she found that it was as though time had stood still. "I imagined that change would manifest in the form of better sheds or eating hygienically prepared food. But the reality was quite different. Also, the place I had chosen to visit was close to the district headquarters (Mangalsen), and yet taboos and customs were being observed," she says. Ironically, Oligaun has been declared chhaupadi-free by local authorities, mirroring the situation in many parts of India which have been termed open defecation-free, ignoring the ground reality.

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Chhaupadi impacts every aspect of a woman's life in Nepal, from being able to live with one's family to crossing rivers, sitting under Peepal trees, touching leaves €" even ones that have fallen €" and going to the regular water source to bathe and wash their clothes (an immediate risk to their hygiene). Water is given to them in a manner that ensures they do not "pollute" the family. "The villagers isolated them, the water source they would have to visit was 30 minutes away. Watching this unfold made me feel suffocated," Bista says.

The taboo doesn't just have physical consequences. "They have many fears, psychological ones, social ones because they are fearful of their families, of their religion and of rules put in place by ancestors in the name of gods. The feeling of loneliness does not last only for the duration when they are on their period, it's a feeling that remains for months across their whole lives. They are born with this deep-rooted stigma and it takes so long to eradicate it from their hearts," Bista says.

Fear drives them to continue practicing chhaupadi.

The forest, then, is a sanctuary to the women young and old in the village €" a space that accepts them sans prejudice. "In the village, there is no other place where they can relax€¦ All the women I met in Oligaun felt this way about the forest. I remember a 50-year-old who took me into the woods and sang to me; she had a lovely voice€¦ This is how bound they are by social norms. Patriarchy has alienated them from and made them afraid of their own sons," Bista explains. It is taboo to touch members of one's family, especially male ones.

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She spent much of her time getting to know her subjects and sharing stories, rather than taking photographs of them. They opened up to her, which was crucial considering the subject and the context they were in. Her style for the project was subject-led, with the girls posing for her and telling her how they'd like to be photographed.

"My approach involves understanding the subject and portraying them as they'd like to be seen. Their simplicity, welcoming nature, and the strong desire to effect change has also shaped how I took the pictures," Bista adds. This defined the tone of the project €" intimate and personal. The photographs have been aptly described as a 'tender solicitation'.

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Like many social practices, chhaupadi has stubbornly persisted in Nepali society because the deterrents aren't effective enough. "The older generation is willing to pay the 3,000 rupee fine€¦ It is a taboo that is being passed on from one generation to the next because they perceive it as a gift from their ancestors," Bista explains.

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She illustrates this further through the example of Rishi Panchami, a festival. Those women who are menstruating during the festival fast in order to seek forgiveness from saints for any mistakes they may have committed while on their period. "The main feature of this festival is a ritual bath. The government did not declare the day of the festival as a public holiday, but most women across the country still celebrated it," she adds.

In many places in Achham and other districts in far West Nepal, local governments have demolished sheds. They also award those who don't go to the sheds when they're on their period. "But demolishing the chhau goth is not the only solution," Bista says. She is of the opinion that the fear accompanying chhaupadi must be dealt with. "Those who practice the taboo must be counselled and told that these rules have been created by human beings, not religious deities."

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What is of note is that urban Nepal does not fare much better than its rural counterpart when it comes to menstruation taboos (Bista herself has to follow certain customs). She says that the situation is similar, only that the form the taboos take are different €" and in some cases, more devastating.

"In the urban areas, people don't openly practice the custom. Last year when I returned from Achham, one girl who lives in my neighbourhood was kept inside a room for seven days when she got her first period. She was not allowed to go school, or even look at sunlight. This is not the case in the village," Bista explains.

Interestingly, a few of the girls in Oligaun have begun using the menstrual cup, as a result of the Rato Baltin program which aims to eradicate chhaupadi through sex education.

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Amid attempts to reform are small acts of rebellion by the young girls in the village. Many of them don't inform family members when they're on their period during some months (a real risk, because not going to the menstruation huts can invite questions about pregnancy and relationships with men). Then, they go about working in the house €" even offering prayers €" and don't hesitate in making physical contact with members who are said to be shamans.

In this way, they are able to convince themselves (and in some cases, their elders) that impurity is but a product of blind faith.

"Tejana Khanal, one of my subjects, is exiled to a shed every month when she lives at home. Her father and brother are shamans. After visiting an exhibition of Our Songs from the Forest in Kathmandu this year, she gathered the courage to try convincing her parents to allow her inside the house when she was on her period. She was successful! She is happy that the small step she took has resulted in change," Bista says.

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Our Songs from the Forest was exhibited at the 2019 edition of The Indian Photography Festival

All photographs © Uma Bista

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