Periods. Not the ones at the end of these sentences. I’m referring to the ones we don’t talk about. But why is that?
When my best friend first got her period, her behavior and confidence took a 180 degree turn. As her friend, I’ve always made it clear to her that I worry about her wellbeing, but it still took her months to tell me why she wasn’t feeling very good, why she’d use the restroom every few hours, why she looked uncomfortable, and why she’d rather stay home than go to school on many occasions.
Although she finally decided to tell me she had gotten her period, it wasn’t without shaky hands, a trembling voice, and the accompaniment of, “I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable.”
The world has an awfully blatant problem: women aren’t free to talk about their periods. In fact, anything associated with menstruation is often looked down upon and regarded with shame and distaste in a multitude of cultures.
Although this “menstrual taboo” is incredibly widespread, it’s particularly strong in rural western Nepal, where a myriad of villages still practice the act of exiling girls and women on their periods from their family homes.
One such case concerns Gauri Kumari Bayak, a young Nepali woman with a strong voice, spirit, and mind whom many admired for her courage in leading birth control classes and encouraging women to stand up for themselves. She was known as a talented and highly motivated woman, her family describing how she balanced teaching illiterate women to read with completing her own high school degree. Only in her twenties, Bayak had her entire life ahead of her and could often be found husking corn in the vast fields of her village at day and sewing dresses at night. She dreamt of moving to Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, to work as a successful tailor. But all it took was yet another circumstance of societal pressure and deadly superstition to cut her life tragically short.
In early January 2018, Bayak was found dead by her neighbors, asphyxiated by the small fire she’d built to keep herself warm. Considered impure and untouchable because she was menstruating, she was left to sleep outside in a windowless hut the size of a shed, defenseless to the biting Himalayan winter.
Bayak was one of the latest victims of “chhaupadi,” a centuries-old practice in Nepal (meaning “someone who bears an impurity”) that prohibits menstruating Hindu women and girls from participating in social gatherings and normal family activities. During this time, women are restricted from going to school, entering the kitchen, house, or temple, and even consuming meat and dairy. Touching men, using warm blankets, and taking baths are also strictly forbidden.
The vast majority of people in Bayak’s village of Tumarkhad and in Nepal in general are Hindu. Ancient Hindu culture labels menstruating women as toxic, with the belief that they taint anything they come in contact with. As a result, women are perceived as “polluted” and even “dangerous” when they get their period every month, and thus their families shun them from their homes and force them to sleep in makeshift spaces as tiny as closets or foxholes.
Walls of mud and rock, often only grass for a roof comprise these tiny, dilapidated huts and sheds. The women who trudge outside to these spaces each night sleep alongside cows or goats and are subject to frequent rape and exposure to other grave dangers. Many die.
In fact, at least one woman or girl in these chhaupadi huts–usually more–freeze to death, die of smoke inhalation, or are killed by wild animals every year. Just two months ago, 18-year-old Tulasi Shahi of a village in the Dailekh district in western Nepal was bitten and killed by a poisonous snake after being sent to sleep on wooden boards amongst cows in her uncle’s hut— all because she was on her period.
In 2010, Nepal’s reported that, “while 19 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 nationwide [were victims of] chhaupadi, the problem was particularly acute in the hilly regions in the country’s mid- and far-west, where approximately 50 percent of women [were subject to] the practice.”
When I first learned of all of this, I was shocked. Breathless. Appalled. How had I not heard of something so dehumanizing before? It’s evident that more light needs to be cast on the bizarre and illogical social norms claiming the lives of women all over the world. Growing up surrounded by our own traditions, culture, and ways of doing things, it’s easy to shut out and ignore the problems that are oceans away. But the fact that innocent women and girls are being stripped of their rights and safety every day and are forced to live like animals is highly pressing and not something to be cast aside. We share the same planet. It’s our concern too.
Conquering such obstacles begins with us. Step by step. Menstruation needs to be discussed more in society, talked about more openly, and normalized, not shamed and disgraced. To do this, we must speak up. Raise our voices. Fight for change.
Not some other time. Not later. Now.
-Ryan Doan Nguyen