SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We're going to meet two teenage girls now, both born and raised in Nepal, both with loving families. Like many girls in southern Asia, each month when they get their periods, they say that something horrible happens. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff and Jane Greenhalgh report on a tradition in Nepal that's held women back for thousands of years.
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Our first girl is Priakriti Kandel. She's 15, she's studying for her SATs and with short hair and black-rimmed hipster glasses, Priakriti already looks like a college student. Each month, though, she faces a tough situation.
PRIAKRITI KANDEL: When I am having my period, I can't touch my grandmother. I can't eat while she's eating. I can't touch the table while she's eating. I can't touch my father. I can't touch my mother.
JANE GREENHALGH, BYLINE: It's even worse for our second girl, Kamala B.K. She's 14 and lives out in the remote West. I met Kamala in a village called Tankut. I was sitting on the porch of my guest house when Kamala walked by. She's tiny, barely five feet, a bright red ribbon in her dark hair. We try to get her to talk to us, but she won't come over to the porch.
CECILE SHRESTHA: Because she's menstruating, she should not be entering another person's house.
GREENHALGH: I'm traveling with Cecile Shrestha of Wateraid, which is working with the girls and women in these villages to end a deeply rooted tradition.
SHRESTHA: When they're menstruating, no matter what, they stay outside. They eat outside and they sleep outside.
GREENHALGH: Outside in sheds, raised platforms, no walls. Some have thatched roofs. We ask Kamala if she's heading to one of these sheds.
SHRESTHA: Yeah, she'll sleep there tonight.
GREENHALGH: We ask her to come closer, but she covers her face with her hands and won't move.
Why is she hiding her face?
SHRESTHA: She's scared that we're going to beat her.
GREENHALGH: Because stepping on the porch would break a menstrual taboo, she runs away.
DOUCLEFF: Three hundred miles away in the capital Kathmandu, I visit a completely different world.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello, come, please.
Priakriti is from an upper middle class family. She lives in a beautiful three-story home with a lush rose garden out front.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tea or coffee?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tea.
DOUCLEFF: Right away, it's clear Priakriti is very close to her parents. She sits next to her mom on the couch and often puts her head on her mom's shoulder. She says her dad has always supported her goal to go to college abroad, even though many girls in Nepal don't get to go to college at all.
PRIAKRITI: He was the one who said that it was fine having one daughter and that he didn't need a son. So he's always been inspiring me in my life.
DOUCLEFF: But Priakriti's family also puts restrictions on her when she's menstruating.
PRIAKRITI: I'm not supposed to go to the kitchen but I keep forgetting that I have my period. It's kind of confusing. Like, you're just going into the kitchen one day and the next day, you're suddenly not allowed to go.
DOUCLEFF: She fights with her mom and grandmother a lot about this. Sometimes she storms off to her room and cries. I ask her what will happen if she doesn't follow the rules. Awful things, she says.
PRIAKRITI: There was this time when my father got sick and he was hospitalized and then the doctors couldn't diagnose him. And then one of the priests, he said that because I had touched him when I was having my period, it could have infuriated the clan gods.
DOUCLEFF: So the priest blamed Priakriti for her dad's illness because she had touched him while she was on her period.
The must have made you feel bad.
PRIAKRITI: Yes, it did.
DOUCLEFF: How is this possible? Where do these ideas come from? Mukunda Aryal has studied Hinduism for 40 years. He says it's in the ancient Scriptures that women are highly infectious during their periods.
MUKUNDA ARYAL: All her body...
DOUCLEFF: He says her body is so weak that infections come out of her mouth.
And that's actually written in Hindu Scripture?
ARYAL: Yes, in many, many Scriptures.
DOUCLEFF: Aryal says that Hinduism has one god that reigns above all others. In Hindu Scripture, this king of gods commits a horrible sin. To atone for it, he created menstruation. Each month women suffer for this god's sin. They're impure, dirty. There's even an expression in Nepal that women say when they're on their periods.
ARYAL: I am now untouchable.
DOUCLEFF: I am now untouchable. Aryal says these taboos date back thousands of years and pervade nearly all cultures and religions. In Christianity, women on their periods were once thought to be dangerous. In some places, these taboos still hold on. For ultra-Orthodox Jews, the laws forbid any contact between men and women. Out in Nepal's western villages, these ancient rules are more than just a nuisance.
SHRESTHA: So we're walking to the shed.
GREENHALGH: We find Kamala and she agrees to take us to her shed. It's about a 10 minute walk. It's starting to get dark and she doesn't have a flashlight.
KAMALA B.K.: (Foreign language spoken.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She's scared mostly snakes and of men.
GREENHALGH: She's heard stories of girls being sexually assaulted when they're alone in their sheds. Kamala believes if she stays in the house, her family will be cursed, their animals will die and her hands will curl up and become deformed. And so Kamala sleeps here in this small shed. It's more like a cage with wooden bars crisscrossed over the top and sides.
It was raining really hard last night and it doesn't look as though there's any real cover on her shed.
KAMALA: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She got all drenched in the rain and she slept here the whole night.
GREENHALGH: It's actually illegal in Nepal to force women into these sheds. But many villagers in the remote West continue to do it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't feel good about this, of practicing this.
GREENHALGH: Kamala says she can't break society's rules. But in the capital, Kathmandu, Priakriti is determined to change them.
PRIAKRITI: Because of this belief, because of this ritual, women are not equal to men. So I think this is just a way of discrimination, and discrimination always hurts.
DOUCLEFF: After the priest blamed Priakriti for her father's illness, she went to work. She learned about the biology of menstruation and about how other cultures around the world treat it. Then she had an epiphany.
PRIAKRITI: Menstruation is not a taboo but a power for women.
DOUCLEFF: A power for women. She felt so strongly about this issue that she wrote a book.
PRIAKRITI: I can show you the first draft of that book.
The book is a novel called "Imposter."
PRIAKRITI: I can read the prologue.
DOUCLEFF: OK, that would be great.
PRIAKRITI: (Reading) The world was created by divine powers that we know as gods and goddesses...
DOUCLEFF: It's about a society where menstruation gives women superpowers. Men are afraid.
PRIAKRITI: And so they decided to ostracize - (laughter) what? So they decided to ostracize women so that they couldn't unleash their power.
DOUCLEFF: Priakriti is laughing because her mom is beside her making fun of her book and her ideas about menstruation. But Priakriti is serious. Her goal in life is to stop menstrual taboos. Here's her plan.
PRIAKRITI: After school, I want to pursuit political science in a very good college. And my aim in life is to be the prime minister of Nepal and change things.
DOUCLEFF: Change things to get Kamala and all the girls in the countryside out of their sheds. Michaeleen Doucleff.
GREENHALGH: And Jane Greenhalgh, NPR News.
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