Menstrual Sheds Are Hard To Give Up In Western Nepal : Goats and Soda In western Nepal, women often sleep in a hut outside the house during menstruation because of beliefs about impurity — and sometimes die. The government is trying to end the practice.

Why It's Hard To Ban The Menstrual Shed

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Last August, Nepal enacted a new law to try to keep women safe during their periods. The law criminalizes forcing a woman to sleep outside the house while menstruating, a common practice in the country's west. Danielle Preiss reports.

DANIELLE PREISS, BYLINE: In the village of Timilsena, Nirmala Upadhyay wakes at 4 to milk the family buffalo.

NIRMALA UPADHYAY: (Foreign language spoken).

PREISS: As the sun creeps up behind forested mountains, she and two neighbors walk four miles to sell the milk to shops for sweet Nepali tea. They do this every day except when they have their periods. Then they can't touch the animals or the milk. A belief linked to Hinduism says God can get angry if they touch sacred things, Upadhyay explains.

UPADHYAY: (Through interpreter) The shamans say that if you stay inside the house, a fire could happen, or a tiger could come.

PREISS: Across Nepal, women follow different versions of these purity rules. Most avoid prayer rooms and kitchens. But here in the west, many don't enter the house at all. God is understood to be inside. So at night, they typically sleep in small sheds. When Upadhyay returned one November morning in 2016, she found her 21 year old sister-in-law, Dambara, dead inside. Her cause of death remains unknown.

UPADHYAY: (Through interpreter) I think about her when I'm working. I think about her when I'm eating. I think about her when there's a festival going on.

PREISS: Over a dozen deaths have been connected to the practice, called chaupadi. Many have been from women lighting fires inside the sheds to stay warm. Chaupadi has been illegal since 2005, but this didn't seem to stop it. For one thing, there was no consequence for breaking the law. That changed in August. Anyone who forces a woman into a shed could now face three months in jail or a fine equivalent to about $30. But Mohna Ansari, with Nepal's Human Rights Commission in Kathmandu, says no one has ever been charged.

MOHNA ANSARI: Because they are not willing to report against the family members.

PREISS: It's hard to prove a woman was forced. Dambara Upadhyay's husband had asked her to stay home the night she died. But she said she didn't want to risk it. The family quickly tore down the shed. But five months ago, they built a new one despite the change in the law. Nirmala Upadhyay takes me inside.

UPADHYAY: (Foreign language spoken).

PREISS: There's just a foot of space next to the wooden slat set up for a bed and a small shelf carved into the mud wall with toiletries.

UPADHYAY: (Foreign language spoken).

PREISS: A mirror, makeup.

UPADHYAY: Makeup. (Foreign language spoken).

PREISS: They belong to her 14-year-old niece. She got her period two months ago. Upadhyay follows the practice too, but she also agrees with the law.

UPADHYAY: (Through interpreter) They're looking out for our health, the police. If we stay in the shed when we're alone, we can get possessed by spirits. We can get sick, and no one will know.

PREISS: Koshila Khatri, one of the milk-selling neighbors, tells about a time when dishes she used while menstruating were accidentally brought into the house. That night, a tiger killed two of the family's goats. Her father-in-law, who is a shaman, says this is what the law can't protect against.

DILLI PRASAD JAISI: (Through interpreter) One buffalo costs 20,000 rupees. If it dies because a menstruating woman touched it, is the government going to pay for that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

PREISS: Dilli Prasad Jaisi takes us inside, where he treats spiritual ailments. As we enter the smoky room, his wife calls out to make sure we don't have our periods.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

PREISS: A few hours away, Ratna Tamata rings a bell at a community temple under construction in Ramaroshan.


RATNA TAMATA: (Foreign language spoken).

PREISS: In these small temples endorsed by the village's shamans, families can keep their sacred items. This means God is now outside the house, so women can stay in without breaking the rules.

TAMATA: (Through interpreter) We still need to pray. But for our safety, now we put God outside.

PREISS: The shamans' campaign helps a group of women activists push back in their own way. They want women to stay inside too.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTIVISTS: (Singing in foreign language).

PREISS: "Men and women are equal; their blood is the same," sing the women.

GANGA DEVI SAUD: (Foreign language spoken).

PREISS: The group's leader, Ganga Devi Saud, says the law can create fear, but the women themselves can show how nothing bad will happen from abandoning the practice. It's a message the women in Timalsena agree with. For NPR News, I'm Danielle Preiss in Achham, Nepal.

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