It's been over a year since we got back from Nepal...a long time. I never imagined that writing about Nepal would take me this long. I can't tell you how many times I've written this post, how many versions I have stored in my computer. I never expected to feel so lost, so bereft of a part of my soul upon returning. I didn't know that I would grieve. And I certainly never had it in my mind that I would travel down into the depths of my psyche, to know more fully the person that I am, to begin the process of healing. It has been a long time, and yet, there are things that stand out to me, still. And what stand out to me, are the stories. At my core, I'm a storyteller, and these are some of the stories of Jumla.
Kashab is the volunteer coordinator for Action Works Nepal (AWON). He's only 24 years old, and he's the primary source of financial support for his mother and younger siblings. His father died when Kashab was 21, leaving him as the head of the family. Kashab and his family are of a higher caste, but when his father died, no one wanted to hire him. When I first met him, it seemed odd that a young man from such a remote and rural area would work for an organization that championed women's rights. He grew up enjoying the privileges that come with being male and of a higher caste. Why was he walking the trails of the Himalayas talking to women about their menstrual cycles? When I asked him how he got involved with AWON, and how he came to work for the advancement of women, Kashab told me of his father's death and of the trouble he had finding work. Radha, of Action Works Nepal, was the only one who would give him work. So, at first, it was only a job he was hired to do. Then, he said, he began to listen to the message that Radha was trying to send.
Kashab and I generally spoke at night with Radha as an interpreter. We would all be huddled under thick blankets, with only our faces poking out, lest we freeze a finger, or maybe a toe or two. Nepal has no heating system for homes. People in the larger cities, who can afford it, use electric heaters and even they can be insufficient against the cold nights. Many of the homes are made out of concrete, or cinder blocks, and there are many ways in which the outside becomes the inside. The first night together, Radha wanted to share a bed with me. There was only one small bed which consisted of a carpet placed on top of some plywood. The rest of us would have to sleep on the floor. I thought that she was trying to be nice and share the bed with me because maybe she thought I was not used to "roughing" it. I tried to refuse and take a pallet on the floor, not only to give Radha more room on the bed, but also to help Kalpana feel more comfortable. Kalpana was another AWON member of only 17 years, and I thought she would feel uncomfortable sleeping next to just Kashab. Radha insisted, and so we shared the bed. Kashab got kicked out to another room by himself. A few minutes into the night, I knew why Radha had insisted so hard. Maybe it was because we were staying by the river, I don't fully know, but to say that it was freezing would be grossly insufficient. The narrowness of the bed was a blessing as it made cuddling mandatory. I felt bad that I had pressed so hard for Kalpana to sleep alone, thinking that she would be more comfortable. Truth be told, I don't think she nor Kashab would have cared who they were sleeping next to, as long as they were a warm body. We all slept together in the same room after that first night.
We talked of many things, but the one thing I was most curious about was Chhaupadi. Chhaupadi is the practice of shunning girls and women during menstruation and childbirth due to the erroneous belief that their blood is unclean. Many of the women are treated like animals, oftentimes worse. They're not allowed to share food, or use water from the same source. They're shut up and segregated from the community. At night, they're forced to sleep in the cowshed, or if one is unavailable, then any shack or make shift shelter suffices. These girls and women risk exposure to the elements, snake bites, kidnapping, and sexual assault. Their "impurity" is somehow forgotten or irrelevant to the men who come to rape them when they are without the protection of the community and vulnerable. Chaaupadi exacts a heavy toll on a girl's physical, emotional, and psychological well being.
Chhaupadi was made illegal in Nepal in 2005, but many women still hold to the tradition, particularly in rural villages. Kashab told me how as a young boy, he would join his mother in the cowshed to sleep. Being the only son, he was allowed to stay with his mother, even after weaning. (Mothers are sometimes allowed to take breastfeeding babies into the cowsheds with them.) He told me about the scratchy hay, the filth, the absolute darkness, the bitter cold, and the stench. As he grew older, his mother went by herself. I asked if he ever felt sorry for her, and if he thought that it was right for her to be banished for menstruating. He said that it was normal. Every menstruating girl and woman practiced Chauupadi. Still...he didn't want his mother to go. He knew what it was like to be hidden away, to be shamed, and sleep exposed on the filthy dung laced straw. Working with Radha, knowing of the injustices firsthand, and seeing countless women subjected to the same brutal, and sometimes violent treatment, Kashab now speaks against the practice of Chhaupadi. He keeps his mother and younger sisters from participating. He does also discourage his older sisters from practicing, but has less of an impact as they're married and their families expect them to follow tradition.
Having a man speak against Chhaupadi is huge. Educating men, like Kashab, and involving them in the eradication of this archaic practice is crucial to garnering support for these girls and women. The problems these women face, simply because of menstruation, filter into every part of their lives:
Half of the people on the planet are female, most of whom begin their cycles between 9-17 years of age.Despite menstruation being a natural process that is part of nearly every girl and woman’s life, it is still treated as a taboo in countless cultures and societies across the globe. A profound silence around the topic, combined with a lack of access to information, results in girls and women possessing very little understanding of their own bodies. Many are managing their periods in an unsafe and unhygienic manner, using old rags or other unhygienic and ineffective materials. These problems are exacerbated by limited access to and affordability of hygienic products, safe and private sanitation facilities, inconsistent supplies of water for personal hygiene, and inadequate disposal options. As a result of the above, menstruating girls and women often feel ashamed and embarrassed about themselves, excarbating the silence because they would rather keep it a secret than talk about it. Facing health problems and socio-cultural taboos surrounding their periods, they become isolated from family, school, and their communities. Women and girls miss school and productive work days, thus falling behind their male counterparts.-Menstrual Hygiene Day
Education, physical, emotional, and psychological health, finances, family dynamics and subsequent dysfunction: the list goes on and on. It is not a simple matter of bleeding women staying to themselves. My conversations with Kashab made it clear that this is a violation of fundamental human rights and dignity. But more on that later...