Nepal dispatch: latest rape of a menstruating woman in a Chhaupadi shed highlights gender inequality and injustice Dispatches
Nepal dispatch: latest rape of a menstruating woman in a Chhaupadi shed highlights gender inequality and injustice

Law students and law graduates in Nepal are reporting for JURIST on events in that country impacting its legal system. Smriti Pantha is a graduate of the Kathmandu University School of Law. She files this from Kathmandu.

Chhaupadi is an age-old social malpractice in Nepal, predominantly observed in the Karnali and Far-Western Provinces. The term ‘Chhaupadi’ derives from Chhau, meaning “untouchable or unclean”, and padi refering to “being or becoming.” Hence, chhaupadi refers to a “state of being untouchable/unclean.” Driven by misconceptions, myths, and superstitions, this practice considers  menstruating women and postpartum mothers ‘impure’ and ‘untouchable’, compelling them to reside in separate menstrual huts or livestock sheds known as Chhaugoths and avoid touching male family members, crops, livestocks, communal water taps, temples and fruit-bearing plants. Any deviation from this ritual is believed to bring illness and misfortune. The sheds are typically cramped, poorly lit, and lack adequate facilities. Chhaupadi influences family dynamics, cultural practices, and social life; as a consequence, women and girls are subjected to unhygienic and unsafe conditions, placing them at risk of sexual violence, suffocation, pneumonia, snake bites, and both physical and mental distress. There are also numerous cases of women and girls being raped and killed in Chhaugoths; some cases are reported, while many are covered up.

Last Tuesday, 18th June, a 16-year-old girl was found unconscious in a Chhaugoth in Panchdeval Vinayak Municipality-2 of Achham District. At first, the villagers covered it up by saying that she usually fainted and was epileptic, but later, when the girl was taken to the district hospital in Mangalsen, she revealed that she was raped. The victim, who lived at her maternal uncle’s house, told One-stop Crisis Management Center (OCMC) that her distant relative raped her outside the shed at around 2am. “It seems the victim was unconscious for around 12 hours. She was so traumatized that she could not talk for a long time even after regaining consciousness,” said Ganga Budha Magar, information officer at the hospital. According to Deputy Superintendent of Police Santosh Pathak, chief at the District Police Office in Achham, a distant relative of the victim, the suspect has been arrested for further investigation. After the girl was sent to the hospital, the shed was demolished on Tuesday in the presence of public representatives, police and locals.The community resistance is so strong there that the menstrual huts are rebuilt instantly despite dismantling it frequently.

Chhaupadi is a manifestation of deep-rooted patriarchy. Menstruation is a monthly process and every month, women and girls experience discriminatory, untouchability, and inhumane treatment during menstruation, jeopardizing their safety and well-being. This practice strips away their human rights and dignity while fueling patriarchy and misogyny that is prevalent in the Nepali society.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), everyone has the right to live with adequate healthcare, food, clothing, housing, and necessary social services. However, the entrenched societal norms of Chhaupadi discriminate against women and girls by relegating them to live in sheds, which violates their fundamental rights as human beings. This practice not only contravenes international laws but also breaches protections against untouchability and discrimination, as well as rights relating to safe motherhood and reproductive health guaranteed by the Constitution of Nepal,2015. This is a blatant infringement on the fundamental rights of women and girls as recognized by both national and international human rights frameworks.

Efforts to eradicate Chhaupadi in Nepal began with a writ petition filed in 2005 AD by Dil Bahadur Bishwakarma vs. Council of Ministers and others (NKP 2062BS, D.N. 8557). The Supreme Court declared it a malpractice and issued directives to multiple government agencies for eradicating the Chhaupadi tradition. Subsequently the government formulated the Chhaupadi Practice Elimination Directive in 2008 and has also been criminalized as an offense under Article 168 of the Criminal Code Act- 2017, with individuals convicted of Chhaupadi-related crimes facing up to three months in jail and/or a fine of Rs. 3,000. To consolidate efforts in eradicating this practice, the local government of Sudurpaschim Province formulated the Chhaupadi Eradication Policy in 2019. The Ministry of Home Affairs also launched a campaign in the Far West and Karnali Provinces to end the Chhaupadi malpractice, titled ‘Demolishing the Chhaugot, Raising Public Awareness’. Despite these national efforts, uprooting Chhaupadi practice is still a challenge for Nepal. 

Chhaupadi is not only a deep-seated social taboo but a representation of broader mistreatment of women in society. Women and girls endure exploitation in the name of cultural belief till date. Therefore, addressing the eradication of the Chhaupadi system requires urgent attention. In order to bring about resistance to such malpractice it is important to transform societal attitudes and increase advocacy efforts with active involvement of the locals. Additionally, effective implementation of the existing legal framework at both national and community levels is imperative to completely eradicate the Chhaupadi system.