The chhaupadi goth in which girl died two weeks ago.
Last Tuesday, three wards in Ridikot VDC were declared “Chhaupadi Free,” marking the beginning of a movement that is hoped to gain recognition throughout Achham. This declaration marked a moment of triumph for the residents of the wards, and they were certainly proud of it. But the announcement came at a price; it came at the expense of a young girl’s life. A 14 year-old girl suffocated to death in a chhaupadi goth (shed) two weeks ago. Chhaupadi is a centuries-old tradition that is practiced in the Western and Far Western regions of Nepal. In this tradition, females are banished to a chhaupadi goth during the days of their menses. The goth is generally made out of stones, straw and mud, with no windows, and can barely fit a person. This practice arose from the belief that women are impure while menstruating, and hence are not supposed to touch anyone. They are not allowed any dairy products during menstruation, and are only given a thin blanket (little thicker than a sheet), which is not sufficiently warm during the winter months. The practice also requires women to bathe and wash daily. This may seem normal, but in these circumstances the woman has to travel miles early in the morning to reach one specific tap that is reserved only for menstruating women. During their monthly cycles, women are not allowed to touch communal water taps, due to the belief that they will tarnish the water source. Every year there are stories in the news of women and young girls dying in chhaupadi goths because of snake bites, animal attacks, or the cold, as in this case. The girl had lit a small fire in her chhaupadi goth to keep herself warm, and had stuffed the cracks around the doorway with her clothes to prevent the cold from entering in. Due to the small area and the smoke, the young girl was found dead by her mother the next morning, due to asphyxia. Having realized the harmful effects of chhaupadi, the community decided to banish the age-old tradition.
The Bayalpata Hospital Community Health Department (CHD) joined in their efforts, and together went around the wards tearing down the goths. The first house visited was the home of the recently deceased girl. Her family members were very supportive of the campaign. The goth was right by their house, but one had to crawl to get inside and there were cracks in the doors. It was evident why the girl had felt the need to light a fire. The ashes from the fire lit by the girl were still there; a painful reminder of a young promising girl whose life had been cut short by this practice. As we moved from house to house, the women of the respective houses took part in the process. I still remember one woman who was actually dancing and saying “O! We don’t have to live in goths anymore, and my family members will never have to.” The same emotion was echoed at every house we went to, and there was a feeling of liberation in their voices. This was followed by repeated meetings within the community, during which wards 1-3 were successfully declared “Chhaupadi Free,” and the commitment was made to work on the remaining wards of Ridikot as well. Our CHD prepared a lesson plan on carbon monoxide poisoning for our Community Health Worker Leaders the following week, and decided to include carbon monoxide poisoning in the monthly menstrual hygiene workshop that we give at the high school in Bayalpata as well.
This course of events made me think about a conversation I had with Dr. Aruna Uprety recently. Dr. Uprety serves on our Board of Advisors and works extensively in the field of women’s health. She has long been an advocate for the uprooting of this practice, and since we intend to work in the remaining wards of Ridikot VDC, her input and suggestions at this stage are crucial for planning our strategy. During our meeting, she suggested that the first step was to involve the Jhakris. The health-seeking behavior of the people of Achham is to first seek help from local Jhakris, and then to sometimes pursue further treatment at health posts or hospitals. Hence, it was immediately clear why she emphasized the involvement of Jhakris as the first step if one plans to work in the field of chhaupadi or any other health-related issue in Nepal.
As our Country Director, Stephen Petersen says, “Bringing about a change is difficult, and any amount of awareness is not really going to help the cause unless it comes from the people within.” I had thought that true change had happened in this case, since the community had self-motivated and taken the first step forward. Upon hearing the news about the family going to the Jhakris to learn the cause of their daughter’s death, I have to wonder whether this decision was made out of true understanding or merely emotional outrage? Is the community going to follow through on their decision and give up age-old superstitions and beliefs, or is “Chhaupadi Free” going to be a phrase that exists in paper only? If, despite all of our efforts, this young girl’s family still believes her death to be of unknown origin, it may only be a matter of days or weeks before they return to the old practice.
Only time will tell.
Written by Ashma Baruwal, February 27, 2013, Nyaya Health Blog. Original article here