Banished To A 'Menstrual Shed,' A Teen In Nepal Is Bitten By A Snake And Dies
For three nights, Tulasi Shahi slept in the cowshed underneath her home in Nepal's western Dailekh district because she was on her period. In western Nepal, many families believe it is a sin for menstruating women to sleep inside the home and could bring bad luck.
On her third night in the shed — last Wednesday — a snake entered, so on Thursday night the 18-year-old moved to the cowshed at her uncle's house, according to Anita Gyawali, the women's development officer in the district. That night, a snake breached the uncle's shed, this time biting Shahi on the hand.
Shahi's family brought her to a Hindu shaman, who performed rituals from 10 p.m. til 6 the next morning before declaring she needed a doctor. The local health clinic was unable to treat her, lacking a supply of antivenom, according to the New York Times. Shahi died en route to the hospital a few hours away on Friday.
Snakebites are common during Nepal's rainy summer, but the fact that Shahi died from a snakebite while in menstrual seclusion has brought renewed attention to the practice — and renewed calls to end it.
Sleeping outside the house, called chaupadi, is one of the most extreme forms of restrictions for menstruating girls and women in certain parts of Nepal. Women across the country observe a wide-ranging set of rules based on the belief that menstruation is impure.
Nepal's Supreme Court banned chaupadi in 2005 as a human rights violation, but it remains widespread in certain parts of the country, where fears of consequences for breaking menstrual taboos retain a tight grip. A 2010 government study found 19 percent of Nepali women practiced chaupadi, but in the mid- and far-west, where Shahi lived, the figure was closer to 50 percent. A government study in another western district, Jumla, put the figure at 74 percent this year.
Tulasi Shahi's death is just one of several incidents in which young women have died while practicing chaupadi.
Gyawali says around a month and a half earlier, 16-year-old Lal Sara B.K. died of a snakebite while practicing chaupadi. She lived in the same area as Shahi.
"Lal Sara's case was never discussed anywhere," Gyawali says. "When Tulasi's accident happened people started talking about it and people from those places started coming and saying, 'oh no, this is serious and wrong.' So change is happening but it's very slow."
The government did in fact promise change after two highly publicized chaupadi-related deaths in the neighboring Achham district last year: Dambara Upadhyay, whose cause of death was not determined, and 15-year-old Roshani Tiruwa, whose death was attributed to smoke inhalation.
Activists hoped the government would start enforcing its ban on the practice. After the 2016 deaths, then prime minister Kamal Pushpa Dahal expressed public concern, and the government considered punishing families who perpetuate the practice. Local officials started publicly tearing down the sheds, including the shed Roshani Tiruwa died in, according to Shiva Raj Dhungana, a journalist who covered her case in Achham district.
But the practice continues, and families face no consequences for adhering to it. "There is no change," Dhungana says of Achham. "The families in the area right around where the two women died are still staying outside in unsafe conditions during menstruation."
Pragya Lamsal, a development worker who focuses on sanitation and hygiene issues, says Achham had been declared "chaupadi-free" before the 2016 deaths. She says families don't abandon the practice because they fear neighbors will shun them if they buck the tradition.
For its part, the government says it's doing its best against a deep-rooted cultural practice. Toyam Raya, the spokesperson for the Ministry tasked with women's, children's and social issues, says the law just doesn't work. "The government cannot go and directly say, this is wrong you have to pay a fine, we'll throw you in jail, these kinds of things, because people have believed these things for a very long time," he says. Raya says building awareness (which he says the government is doing through various programs) not law enforcement, are the solution.
Critics say that education isn't enough. Isha Nirola, a reproductive health advocate with the organization , says chaupadi-related deaths should be viewed as any other death related to domestic violence. In her opinion, the death of 15-year-old Roshani Tiruwa was a case of child abuse.
"It's very clear that this is against the law," Nirola says. "So the fact that the government is not enforcing this [law] is problematic. It's not simply that traditional beliefs trump the law."
Nirola cites the practice of sati, once prevalent in Nepal and India, in which a widow was made to immolate herself on her husband's funeral pyre. Sati has been outlawed in Nepal since 1920 and is no longer practiced. Nirola says chaupadi needs robust law enforcement, in addition to awareness, to be eradicated.
Anita Gyawali, the women's development officer, says the most powerful actors in the fight against chaupadi could be religious leaders and shamans, like the one who attempted to treat Tulasi Shahi after the snakebite. She believes if these traditional healers can be convinced to spread the message that menstruation is normal, that "during periods you need to eat good food, drink good water, stay in a good place," communities may take their word for it.
Danielle Preiss is a Kathmandu-based print and radio journalist. She tweets @daniellepreiss.
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