For a travel-lover, living in the midst of another culture is exciting and intriguing. It can also be downright awkward and call into question one’s own value system. One of the things I struggled with during my stay in Nepal was the practice of chaupadi.
I noticed it first when instead of coming into the parents’ bedroom to watch TV after dinner, my host sister sat just outside the room on the concrete floor of the hallway. She was also given her own cup at dinner instead of using the shared water pitcher, and took her dishes into the bathroom instead of the kitchen to wash them. I learned that this was because she was on her period, and had to take measures to ensure she didn’t contaminate the other people in the house.
Chaupadi is a social tradition in which menstruating women and girls are considered impure and are restricted from normal family life. It was outlawed in 2005, but is still widely practiced with varying degrees of stringency. My host family practiced a more liberal form of chaupadi. In its most extreme form, women may not enter their family homes and must sleep in sheds without mattresses or warm blankets. They are forbidden from touching men, consuming dairy products or meat, and cannot go to work or school. Many women have died from exposure or snake bites, and been victims of sexual assault during their temporary exile.
I felt very conflicted when I learned my host family practiced chaupadi. I was there as a women’s empowerment volunteer, and the family I was staying with stigmatized women simply for having a working reproductive system. I’m not sure what I would have done if my host family required me to practice chaupadi as well. Thankfully, they never asked me about my menstrual cycle. As guests in foreign countries, we sometimes walk a fine line between respecting an unfamiliar culture and acting in accordance with our own values.
I believe in speaking out against the oppression and stigmatization of women—but positive, sustainable change must come from within a community, not from an outsider. That is one of the reasons I am so enthusiastic about the 17 girls FVIN’s donors are supporting through educational sponsorships. When girls are educated, they have more knowledge of their rights, increased confidence and freedom to make decisions regarding their own lives and the lives of their children. The best thing we can do for women and girls is to help them achieve the freedom to make their own decisions regarding their lives, whether that means practicing chaupadi or not.