Menstrual Hygiene in Nepal: Challenges and Progress

Menstrual Hygiene in Nepal: Challenges and Progress

A nation abundant in cultural variety and long-standing customs, menstruation is more than just a physical function; it is intricately connected to cultural, religious, and societal standards. Numerous customs, especially those related to menstruation, have faced criticism for being limiting and discriminatory.

One of the most prominent and controversial practices is "Chhaupadi," prevalent in western Nepal. During menstruation and after childbirth, women are considered impure and are banished to live in small, secluded huts called "Chhau Goth." These huts, often no more than rudimentary shelters, offer little protection from the elements or wild animals. Women are not allowed to touch men, enter their homes, or participate in normal daily activities. Despite being outlawed by Nepal's Supreme Court in 2005 and criminalized in 2017, Chhaupadi persists in many rural areas.

In Nepal, where the majority of the population practices Hinduism, menstruating women are often viewed as ritually impure. This belief stems from ancient religious texts associating menstrual blood with impurity. As a result, women are prohibited from entering temples, participating in religious ceremonies, or handling religious objects during menstruation. Some households extend this prohibition to the kitchen, fearing that any food touched by a menstruating woman will be contaminated, leading to negative consequences.

Challenges related to education and the availability of sanitary products are prominent. Numerous adolescent girls are absent from school when menstruating because of inadequate facilities, concerns about clothing stains, or cultural limitations. Research conducted by WaterAid Nepal in 2017 found that 41% of girls in the Bardiya and Kailali areas miss school each month during their menstrual cycles. Additionally, sanitary napkins are frequently expensive or inaccessible in rural regions, prompting numerous women to resort to unhygienic substitutes such as old cloth or leaves.

The influence of these behaviors on the well-being of women is significant. Women living in unsanitary Chhau huts are exposed to dangers such as pneumonia, snake attacks, and sexual violence. Inadequate menstrual hygiene contributes to higher occurrences of infections in the reproductive system. Additionally, the emotional impact is profound, with many women expressing emotions of embarrassment, diminished self-worth, and in some cases, depression linked to these cultural stigmas.

Nevertheless, there is a shift approaching. Entities such as WaterAid Nepal are not solely investigating the matter but are also striving to enlighten societies on menstrual health. Their research has played a crucial role in emphasizing the extent of the challenge, such as the significant level of school non-attendance among girls during menstruation.

Another key player is Days for Girls Nepal, an international organization with a strong local presence. They provide reusable menstrual kits to girls and women, particularly in rural areas where disposable products are scarce. Beyond distribution, they conduct educational sessions about menstrual health, aiming to improve both hygiene practices and school attendance rates.

Menstrual Movement Nepal is at the forefront of challenging cultural taboos. This homegrown organization works tirelessly to break the silence around menstruation. Through community workshops, school programs, and advocacy work, they're reshaping the narrative—from one of shame to one of empowerment. They also promote eco-friendly menstrual products, addressing both health and environmental concerns.

The government has made significant strides in addressing harmful practices. Nepal's Supreme Court made a courageous decision in 2005 to ban the Chhaupadi tradition. Building on this, in 2017, the government passed a law criminalizing it, with offenders facing up to three months in prison. Although enforcement is difficult in rural regions, these legal actions serve as a clear deterrent against harmful customs.

Educational establishments are more and more supporting comprehensive sexual education initiatives that address menstrual health. This initiative aligns with Nepal's comprehensive 2011 National Sanitation and Hygiene Master Plan. While the primary objective was to attain an 'Open Defecation Free' status in Nepal by 2017, the plan also addressed wider hygiene issues, indirectly encouraging enhanced menstrual hygiene practices.

Young activists, particularly from urban areas, are also raising their voices. Through social media campaigns, street protests, and educational initiatives, they're challenging age-old stigmas. Their efforts are amplified by Nepal's increasing internet penetration, allowing messages of change to reach even remote villages.

Although there has been some improvement, the process of change is slow. In numerous societies, particularly in isolated areas, there is a strong presence of menstrual taboos. Older women, who have followed these customs throughout their lives, frequently take on the role of enforcers, transmitting these beliefs to the younger population. Disrupting this pattern necessitates more than just providing education; it demands a transformation in the cultural perspective—one that views menstruation as a normal occurrence, rather than something impure.

In Nepal, addressing the stigma around menstruation is a complex process that includes elements of gender equality, education, and cultural traditions. This necessitates a holistic approach that incorporates legal actions, community engagement, improved infrastructure, and, crucially, open dialogues. Through candid discussions on these once-taboo topics, Nepal can strive to transform its societal standards, ensuring that women are not ostracized or shamed for a natural bodily function.

Organizations Making a Difference:

Government Actions:

Sources and Further Reading

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