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In Hindu Ritual, Nepali Women Are Banished Once A Month

  • Jaukala, 14, poses for a photo in the family's chaupadi shelter, a squat shed measuring approximately 1 meter by 2 meters, in Rima village, Achham, Nepal. A tarp serves as a temporary roof to this structure, still under construction. Jaukala must sleep here while she has her period.
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    Jaukala, 14, poses for a photo in the family's chaupadi shelter, a squat shed measuring approximately 1 meter by 2 meters, in Rima village, Achham, Nepal. A tarp serves as a temporary roof to this structure, still under construction. Jaukala must sleep here while she has her period.
    Courtesy of Allison Shelley
  • Tulachi, 15, Jandhara, 15, and Amana, 14, pose for a photo in front of the entrance to a crawlspace under their home, which serves as their extended family's chaupadi shelter, in Rima village. They share the space with the household's herd of goats.
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    Tulachi, 15, Jandhara, 15, and Amana, 14, pose for a photo in front of the entrance to a crawlspace under their home, which serves as their extended family's chaupadi shelter, in Rima village. They share the space with the household's herd of goats.
    Courtesy of Allison Shelley
  • Young women observing chaupadi wake up under a rock outcropping in Kalekanda village, Achham, Nepal.
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    Young women observing chaupadi wake up under a rock outcropping in Kalekanda village, Achham, Nepal.
    Courtesy of Allison Shelley
  • Family members of Jeera sit under a dead tree on the site where two of her baby girls were killed in separate overnight attacks. One was killed by a jackal, and the other by a snake as Jeera observed chaupadi six and eight years ago, respectively.
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    Family members of Jeera sit under a dead tree on the site where two of her baby girls were killed in separate overnight attacks. One was killed by a jackal, and the other by a snake as Jeera observed chaupadi six and eight years ago, respectively.
    Courtesy of Allison Shelley
  • Lalita, 14, poses for a photo inside the household chaupadi shelter, a squat crawlspace under the home shared with the family's animals. Lalita sleeps in the dark space behind where the cows are fed, lighting a fire to protect herself from the elements.
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    Lalita, 14, poses for a photo inside the household chaupadi shelter, a squat crawlspace under the home shared with the family's animals. Lalita sleeps in the dark space behind where the cows are fed, lighting a fire to protect herself from the elements.
    Courtesy of Allison Shelley
  • Sauri (left) and her sister-in-law Birma stand in the spot where Sauri's 17-year-old daughter, Laxmi, recently burned to death while sleeping in a chaupadi shed in an area far from the family's home, near Dhakari village, Achham, Nepal. "I have many daughters," said Sauri, "but she was the one who was always with me." The family has since destroyed the shed.
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    Sauri (left) and her sister-in-law Birma stand in the spot where Sauri's 17-year-old daughter, Laxmi, recently burned to death while sleeping in a chaupadi shed in an area far from the family's home, near Dhakari village, Achham, Nepal. "I have many daughters," said Sauri, "but she was the one who was always with me." The family has since destroyed the shed.
    Courtesy of Allison Shelley
  • A group of women and girls chat around a fire as they prepare to sleep under a rock outcropping in observance of chaupadi in Kalekanda village. The space, shared by all of the village women, provides no protection from the elements.
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    A group of women and girls chat around a fire as they prepare to sleep under a rock outcropping in observance of chaupadi in Kalekanda village. The space, shared by all of the village women, provides no protection from the elements.
    Courtesy of Allison Shelley
  • Radhika (left), 14, avoids touching others in her village as she takes a back path toward a water pump where girls practicing chaupadi are allowed to bathe, in Siddheshwar village, Achham, Nepal. During chaupadi, women may not use the regular village water sources, often walking long distances for obligatory daily washing.
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    Radhika (left), 14, avoids touching others in her village as she takes a back path toward a water pump where girls practicing chaupadi are allowed to bathe, in Siddheshwar village, Achham, Nepal. During chaupadi, women may not use the regular village water sources, often walking long distances for obligatory daily washing.
    Courtesy of Allison Shelley
  • Jeeta, 15, dresses for school outside of her family's chaupadi shed in Dhakari village. The family cobbled together the shelter from sticks, tarps and tin after a local healer told them they had caused her sister's paralyzation by tearing down a previous chaupadi shed. The girl recovered when the new shed was built.
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    Jeeta, 15, dresses for school outside of her family's chaupadi shed in Dhakari village. The family cobbled together the shelter from sticks, tarps and tin after a local healer told them they had caused her sister's paralyzation by tearing down a previous chaupadi shed. The girl recovered when the new shed was built.
    Courtesy of Allison Shelley
  • Nabina (left), 17, and Khadi, 12, huddle around a fire for warmth as they prepare to sleep in the household chaupadi shelter, a crawlspace with no door under the home shared with the family's animals.
    Hide caption
    Nabina (left), 17, and Khadi, 12, huddle around a fire for warmth as they prepare to sleep in the household chaupadi shelter, a crawlspace with no door under the home shared with the family's animals.
    Courtesy of Allison Shelley
  • The moon glows overhead as Maisara, 15, prepares to sleep under a rock outcropping in observance of chaupadi in Kalekanda village.
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    The moon glows overhead as Maisara, 15, prepares to sleep under a rock outcropping in observance of chaupadi in Kalekanda village.
    Courtesy of Allison Shelley

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It took a long journey, several 10-hour jeep rides, and many bumpy unpaved roads for photographer Allison Shelley and writer Allyn Gaestel to reach the rural villages in Nepal where women practice chaupadi.

Chaupadi is a traditional Hindu practice that banishes menstruating women — considered unclean — from the rest of the house. According to Shelley and Gaestel, they are not allowed to touch kitchen utensils, share the same water source, go to school, or sleep inside the home during their periods.

Instead, they sleep in huts, animal sheds, caves or even in the open. The crude spaces are often not heated and provide little protection from the elements or from rape. Despite being outlawed in 2005, social and cultural traditions keep chaupadi alive. Shelley told me that women and children have died from exposure, burning or animal attacks, all while practicing chaupadi.

Shelley says she was shocked when she first learned of chaupadi while researching global women's health issues back in the U.S. But she came to realize it was a much more complex issue than simply ordering women back into their homes.

"We went in with a lot of sympathy for the girls — thinking they were just mute victims of this — but we realized that that's not the way they see themselves," says Shelley, who traveled with Gaestel on a grant from the Pulitizer Center On Crisis Reporting.

They learned that the traditions surrounding chaupadi are deeply ingrained and vary from village to village. Some families don't practice it at all, while others believe the gods will punish them if they stop. Many girls simply accept chaupadi as an unquestionable way of life.

"I think for the most part, it wasn't a stigma, it wasn't a shame — and we kept hearing, 'Well, this is what God wanted. It's God's will,' " Shelley says.

Shelley says she was deeply saddened to meet women who had been raped or had lost family members as a result of chaupadi. One woman's daughter burned to death from a fire she lit to keep warm. Another lost two babies who slept with her at night: one was bitten by a snake; the other was taken by a jackal.

But according to Shelley, when she asked the women who had suffered tragedy if their daughters would also practice chaupadi, they said, "Yes, it's a rite of passage. It's just the way we do it here."

Allison Shelley is a documentary photographer who covers international news with a focus on women's health issues. Read Allyn Gaestel's articles about chaupadi and see more photos at pulitzercenter.org.

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