Rita’s Story: How One Girl Challenged Menstruation Taboos in Nepal
A recent campaign in Nepal put cameras in the hands of girls and young women to document, up close and personal, all of the quotidian actions that they are prohibited from while having their menstrual periods. The resulting photos provide a stunning and troubling catalog of menstruation-related discrimination.
“The practice of considering girls untouchable and keeping them away from family during their menstrual period is one of the oldest social beliefs that has been prevailing in our Nepalese society.”
Even in urban areas, often considered wealthier, more “modern,” or more “developed,” girls and women are typically forbidden from entering the kitchen and touching others’ dishes or utensils during their periods. If you’re menstruating, food will be passed to you over the threshold, and you’ll eat apart from everyone, outside the kitchen. You’re also forbidden from entering temples, because you’re considered “impure” and “unclean.” You might be told to walk on the other side of the road away from the temple, or even to find a different—often longer—route to school altogether.
The natural process of menstruation is even more challenging for women in Nepal’s rural areas. As one young woman, Rita*, explains: “There are lots of dreadful beliefs like ‘Chaupadi,’ which is practiced in the rural parts of Nepal, where girls are not allowed to enter the house during their periods. Due to this, lots of girls have become the victims of snake bite, rape cases, etc.”
What can done? While deeply ingrained cultural beliefs are notoriously difficult to change, shifting attitudes is possible. Often, more than any public health posters or top-down advocacy campaigns, it is young women themselves who are changing the culture from the bottom up, mother by mother, grandmother by grandmother, aunt by aunt, woman by woman.
Rita is one of these brave young women who took a stand. She says: “I faced this practice of untouchability in my family during my early menstrual days. And I remember the time when I stood against this practice. At first, I was scolded by my parents when I suddenly refused to follow the practice of not touching things and not being allowed to enter the kitchen and the temples during the period. I faced lots of problems when my relatives knew that I was not following the practice. Although I got lots of criticism at first, I kept on doing things my way and when they knew nothing wrong happened after I didn’t follow the practice of untouchability, they also gradually stopped the practice during menstruation.”
Why was Rita suddenly able to change a set of beliefs and customs that had been passed down from generation to generation? The answer, as she says herself, is education. “The main reason that I stood against that belief was that I know menstruation is just a natural process that happens to all the women and there is no reason why girls should be made untouchable. I know we should remain clean during the period. So, I refused to follow the old superstitious belief.”
Rita’s confidence and matter-of-fact explanation might hide the fact (especially for Westerners) that learning about menstruation is much easier said than done. While Nepal’s national curriculum includes “sex education,” teachers often skip over the subject due to personal discomfort with speaking publicly about a highly taboo subject. If menstruation is taboo enough to kick millions of women out of the kitchen, you can bet it’s not something people bring up in everyday conversation.
At Little Sisters Fund, our Preventative and Emergency Healthcare program provides straightforward, taboo-free information about puberty, menstrual hygiene, and sexual health. Information is important, but the fact that it’s provided to girls by young women who are similar to them, but for a small difference in age, is tremendously empowering. Graduates of the Little Sisters Fund scholarships give back to the program and develop their leadership skills by serving as mentors to younger girls. When an independent, educated young woman—often of college age or just starting on a promising career—stands up in front of younger girls to talk about menstruation as a natural and healthy process, she provides not only information, but a physical embodiment of what empowerment looks like. Taboos feed on fear and discomfort. Where there is none, they will eventually die out.
What happens when you educate girls about their health, their rights, and their potential? They stand up for themselves! But not just for themselves, for others too—for their sisters and friends, and for future generations. Rita, for one, is not done yet: “In my upcoming days I definitely would like to stand against those superstitious beliefs and try my best to eradicate those practices of my country.”
(* name has been changed)
Little Sisters Fund helps Nepalese girls to become empowered leaders through education, mentoring, and community support.