The Chhaupadi System of Nepal and International Women’s Day
By Sagun Basnet
Recently, International women’s day bid adieu to us sloganeering “Equal rights, equal opportunities: Progress for all”. The juncture in the slogan where “equal rights and equal opportunities” precede “progress for all” intrigued me, albeit I found myself standing at a questioning, if not different, location.
I am a passionate advocate of equal rights and opportunities. However, my concern is, how does one first of all have access to equal rights? Fundamental in the discourse of rights are human rights and I wonder if, merely being born as human beings make us eligible to access human rights?
Not generalizing my claim, I take a lucid location for my argument. For corroborating my claim that human rights is cross listed with gender and class, I take into account the Chhaupadi case in Nepal. I understand that I am talking about a deeply rooted culture of my country and I have knowledge that if women face Chhaupadi, they are also revered in many forms there.
I acknowledge the progress made by Nepali women in fields of life and hope that my story can be another step towards the achievement of equal rights. And to add, in no way I wish to give an insider perspective of the Chhaupadi case.
Two months back, a leading Nepali daily published news that a 40 year old woman, Belu Damai, who was kept in an isolated shed during her menstrual period, succumbed to the freezing cold and died. In Far western Nepal, women, during their menstrual periods and after delivering babies are considered impure and are made to stay in sheds for almost a week.
It is believed that if the menstruating woman touches a man or any plant, a pregnant woman or even any animal she brings about their death. These women are barred from taking nutritious food during their menstrual tenure and cannot use conveniences. This system of excluding women from daily activities is called Chhaupadi, which also means having periods in local language.
The Declaration of Human Rights builds up on the notion that it applies to all human beings. The idea is predicated upon the premise that every human being is special and there are certain things which should and shouldn’t be done to all. However, when cases like these come in the forefront just before international women’s day, I wonder how to locate a woman’s rights as a part of universal human rights. Thus, the difficulty is of positioning a universal phenomenon at a particular context.
Human rights declare that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and claims that human rights are inalienable to “all members of the human family. But transgression continues to take place in particular locations in the form of Chhaupadi.
The saddest part for me has always been that a need for human rights arises only after there is a human wrong. While there can be no debate about everyone’s right to access human rights, the homogeneity of the human family makes me wonder what does this mean to those who do not fall under the purview of this family; For instance, the women who are so dehumanized in this case.
My understanding says, violence dares to happen because the perpetrators, deep inside, feel that they possess the violated. They feel that the violated do not feel pain and anything can be done to them. This so called knowledge then inevitably leads to objectification, domination and thus invisibility of human beings.
Violence occurs because the person against whom the violence is being done is not considered a human being but as a beast of burden, an object. Thus, women here could be made to stay in such conditions bearing the brunt of being born a woman who bleeds and gives birth.
Also for this very reason, even the attempts to end or bring awareness against the Chhaupadi system have instead faced obstacles. A family from Doti district in Nepal was ostracized from the community for not following Chhaupadi. “I advised my wife not to practice chhaupadi as it was dangerous for a woman to stay secluded away from home at night, and thus my family is hated” says B.K. the man of the family.
Thus, I argue that being born as human beings do not necessarily guarantee human rights and incidents like these will not cease to happen because rights are for humans not pseudo humans. For these women to have an access to human rights, they should be considered human beings first of all.
These, for me, are cases when the perpetrators do not think of themselves as violating human rights: for they are not doing these things to fellow human beings, but, to women. And they are doing it even when women are celebrating the leap of womanhood in other places.
I have no skepticism about the ongoing activism against the system, and about women’s progress; still I am apprehensive about the human mind that plays a vital part in rendering these rights to fellow humans. On top of any political debate is the fact that every human being should be able to lead a dignified life enjoying their rights provided there is a favorable environment born out of a mind that sees the other as equal.
Thus the question is not if equal rights bring progress, but how to transform the entrenched myths which stop a human being from accessing rights first?
Sagun Basnet is a Fulbright scholar, studying at New York University, who writes about issues affecting the people of Nepal. Contact Sagun through her blog sagunbasnet.wordpress.com or through NewsBlaze. http://newsblaze.com/story/20100317084808basn.nb/topstory.html