In this tiny riverside town in Nepal’s remote Far West region, a spitfire activist explains his fight against chaupadi, the local custom of isolating women from their families during menstruation.
For generations here, menstruating women have slept outside of their homes, in small sheds or in the family stable. They are considered impure and treated as untouchable, so they cannot enter the house or touch communal water or food. The activist, Dhurbar Sunar, is not having it: “I think this is a social crime in terms of women’s rights,” he says.
Mr. Sunar is the Project Coordinator at Samabikas, a local organization pushing to abolish chaupadi here in Achham district and elevate women’s status. They work village by village, declaring them “chaupadi free” as they go.
In Achham, villages are nestled into steep, arid mountains. Technically, Achham is in the hill region, one of three regional belts in Nepal, but the “hills” would be “mountains” in any country that didn’t compare its foothills to the Himalayas. Roads are few and far between, and many communities have long lived isolated, agrarian lifestyles. More and more, the younger generation is attending school and migrating to work, learning new ideas, but ingrained social practices like chaupadi are slow to change.
Some 95 percent of women in Accham practice chaupadi, according to a 2011 estimate by the government's Women's Development Officer in the district.
So Samabikas staff climbs the mountains jutting up in all directions from their riverside office to talk to communities about the practice. They produce radio spots, warning villagers about the dangers of sleeping outside, where women are vulnerable to snake bites, animal attacks, and rapists.
Inside the shed
Up a steep, dusty, winding road from the Samabikas office is Siddheshwar, Sunar’s hometown. Here, Radhika Sunar, fresh-faced at 14, is experiencing her first foray into the chaupadi “goth,” the small shed specially designed for menstruating women.
She squats to get through the door. Inside she stretches out her hands and touches both of the opposite mud walls.
“When four people sleep here, it is very uncomfortable. With three it is slightly uncomfortable, but when two people sleep here, it's pretty comfortable,” she says of the tight space.
She walks awkwardly around the village, avoiding front yards and private paths; she refuses to sit down for an interview for fear of being reprimanded for sullying the chair.
“I don’t like it at all,” she says. “When I’m walking, everyone yells at me ‘don’t touch this! Don’t touch that!' ”
Radhika’s isolation is typical in Achham.
“Everyone in this village stays in the goth during their periods,” Radhika says. “They say that once you get your period, you become a young woman…. But once we grow into young women, they ask us to do a lot of work and become angry at us.”
What makes Radhika unique, though, is that she is the first cousin of Sunar, the proud, anti-chaupadi activist in town. He goes to work and travels to other villages to promote an end to chaupadi, but in his own home, the practice continues.
Sunar grows flustered when asked about his cousin. He explains first that Samabikas does not work in his village, but then backtracks to say that of course he was also pushing for social change at home. But no one listens, he says – he has no authority in the village to change the practice.
One of the Samabikas’ success stories is a village called Bhageshwar on an opposite peak facing Radhika’s village. Sunar trekked up the hill to plan the ceremony to declare the community “chaupadi free.”
A reluctant activist
Samabikas makes the declarations only after the villagers have stopped going to the sheds each month. In Bhageshwar, the catalyst for change came from Maheshwari Bista, a 40-year-old mother with a striking, chiseled face and deep black eyes who giggled nervously when she told us she had never been to school.
Six years ago, when Maheshwari constructed a new house, she built it with a separate room for when she has her period. Now each month she sleeps apart from her husband and the family’s sacred prayer space. She cleans the bedding and paints a new coat onto the smooth mud floor to purify the space. But she is inside, warm and safe from feared snakes or drunk passersby.
“I think everyone believes you should not touch gods or go into other rooms, so I don’t do it,” she explains. “If I start doing everything people will stop having trust in me in the village…. But I touch things in the field, I touch the cows.”
In the intervening years, the community saw that the animals weren’t dying, the fields continued producing, and little by little the women followed Maheshwari inside. Now almost no families in the village send their women to sheds during their period. The only ones that do are those that don’t have space in the house for the women to sleep alone.
Maheshwari had traveled to India with her husband, a migrant worker, years before. There she saw that women did not leave the house during their period. And besides, their rented room was too small for her to sleep separately.
She is a reluctant activist. She didn’t tell other people in the village to stop practicing chaupadi, but in such a small town everyone could see she no longer went into the shed.
“We must bring about change ourselves,” explains Kali Bista, a neighbor of Maheshwari who followed her example five years ago. Ms. Bista says years of campaigns like that of Samabikas did nothing to stop chaupadi in the village until Maheshwari led by example. “NGOs come and go, but we the villagers are here to stay.”