TO GO WITH Nepal-women-religion-society-chhaupadi,FEATURE by Frankie Taggart
Thirteen year old Nepalese villager Sarswati Biswokarma sits inside a "chhaupadi house" in the village of Achham, some 800kms west of Kathmandu on November 23, 2011.  Isolation is part of a centuries-old Hindu ritual known as chhaupadi which is blamed for prolongued depression, young women's deaths and high infant mortality rates in remote, impoverished western Nepal. Under the practice women are prohibited from participating in normal family activities during menstruation and after childbirth.     AFP PHOTO/Prakash MATHEMA (Photo credit should read PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images)
What's a 'menstruation hut'?
00:46 - Source: CNN

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A new law criminalizes the banishment of women during menstruation

Advocates believe the challenge will be in enforcing the law, set to take effect next year

CNN  — 

Radhika Kami lives with her family of six in a traditional mud-and-brick house in a rural village in Nepal’s Kanchanpur district – for most of the year.

For about five days each month, the 16-year-old is banished to a hut – a windowless, ramshackle shed with a small door and poor sanitation and ventilation – and is forbidden from touching other people, cattle, any fruits and vegetables that are growing, even books.

It is known as a menstruation hut, and Radhika must go there each time she has her period.

The family practices Chhaupadi, a centuries-old custom in the remote west of Nepal in which women, considered “impure” during menstruation, are sequestered for the extent of their periods.

“I feel bad that I have to go sleep (in a separate hut) every month, but what can I do?” Radhika asked.

She is not even allowed to use the family toilet during menstruation, instead making a trip to a nearby river.

But she hopes this won’t have to happen for much longer.

On August 9, Nepal’s Parliament passed a bill that would criminalize the banishment of women during menstruation. Once the bill goes into effect, set for August 2018, anyone who forces a woman into a menstrual hut will be sentenced to three months in prison or fined US $30.

Sarswati Biswokarma, 13, sits inside a "Chhaupadi house" in the village of Achham.

‘It closes the door for us’

Advocates of the ban believe, however, that the real challenge will be enforcing it. If girls like Radhika continue to practice Chhaupadi or if they are forced to practice it by senior members of their family, will they report it to authorities?

“Yes, criminalizing it validates the fact that the government of Nepal thinks it is a criminal offense, but it does not in any way ensure that people will stop doing it,” said Pema Lakhi of the Nepal Fertility Care Center, one of the country’s leading menstrual hygiene activists.

Menstrual Hygiene activist Pema Lakhi interacting with a local woman in Achham district of Nepal.

Activists have long pressured lawmakers for a law to punish those who force women to practice Chhaupadi, a ritual rooted in Hindu taboos about menstruation. But campaigners believe that more awareness programs are needed to change behavior and mindsets, and they are not convinced that the law alone will solve the problem.

Lakhi is also concerned that criminalization will make people stop talking about the issue and may be counterproductive to the work she and other activists do.

“We are currently working to destigmatize menstruation. … We talk to girls about Chhaupadi and why they practice it. (Now) they are not going to come up and say ‘yes, I (practice) Chhaupadi,’ ” Lakhi said. “It closes the door for us to actually understand strategic approaches.”

Through conversations with women and girls who practice the tradition, Lakhi and her colleagues say, they have learned that many do it because they want to. “In many cases, the ritual is passed on the generation and not necessarily enforced,” she said.

Amar Sunar, a human rights and menstrual rights activist based in western Nepal’s Dailekh district, is “delighted” that a law will punish Chhaupadi enforcers.