Prekchhya Sharma, who just turned 12, was locked in a room inside her home for 10 days recently during her first menstruation.
Her mother told her that, in accordance with Hindu tradition, she must not look at the male members of her family or at the roof of her house in the heart of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. Her mother didn’t allow her to leave her room and blanketed it with heavy curtains to block any light from entering.
“I am kept here because I started menstruating,” Prekchhya says.
Durga Poudel, 18, who lives in Sukedhara, a suburb of Kathmandu, says she’ll never forget her first menstruation when she was 14.
She was spending her winter holiday at her uncle’s house in Dhading, a neighboring district of Kathmandu, when she started her menstrual cycle for the first time. Her aunt immediately covered her face with a blanket and made her walk for 25 minutes to her other aunt’s house.
With her vision obstructed, Poudel stepped into potholes and got caught in brambles. Her legs became wobbly, and her aunt’s grip on both her hands started to hurt after a while.
“I was there to enjoy my vacation, but I was taken to a place I didn’t know at all,” she says. “I cried out loud when my aunts left me there alone.”
It was mid-January, so it was cold, Poudel says. The adults of the house asked her to bathe with cold water well before dawn, and she soon had a fever. But nobody paid any attention.
“All my days there, I spent crying,” Poudel says.
Poudel’s aunt asked the teenager to spend the first 10 days after her first menstruation in a closed, dark room. She was not allowed to leave her room during the day. In accordance with Hindu tradition, her family does not believe that menstruating girls should touch books, so she was not able to study.
She was not allowed to touch anything except for her own bed and the plates and glasses she used for eating. She was also not allowed to talk to anyone.
Isolation of girls during their first menstruations is a Hindu custom in cities and villages of Nepal, but some scholars say rituals are not all rooted in scripture. Still, parents and guardians continue the practice because of tradition and societal pressure. Nongovernmental organizations and health professionals call for increased education and counseling about menstruation. International and local organizations and the government are working to raise awareness but admit the need for expanded efforts.
The Hindu tradition to isolate girls during their first menstruation is prevalent in districts throughout Nepal – including Kathmandu – though it is more common in rural areas, according to the Adolescent and Youth Survey carried out by the Ministry of Health and Population in 2011. The survey included 5,363 girls between ages 10 and 24 in Nepal’s three ecological regions.
The survey found that 7 percent of the girls stayed in a dark room within the house, and 4 percent stayed in a nearby shed far from home during their first menstruation. Similarly, 30 percent stayed in a separate room where they were not allowed to be touched until the purification process a week later.
“This tradition is prevalent among the Hindus, especially Brahmin and Chhetri communities,” says Anita Pradhan, gender and communication officer in Nepal for WaterAid, an international charity that works to promote safe drinking water and sanitation. “But other ethnic groups living nearby are also influenced by this tradition.”
The only difference among groups is the number of days in isolation, ranging from 10 to 20, says Dinama Lamichhane, a consultant for WaterAid.
Somnath Bhattarai, a 70-year-old Nepali Hindu priest and scholar who has spent more than half a century studying and analyzing Hindu scriptures, says that some restrictions that people practice come from this scripture.
“Only when women clean themselves and rest separately for five days and five nights, they are eligible to offer puja [ritualistic worship] to the gods and to the dead ancestors,” he says, translating a paragraph from Sanskrit to Nepali from the Yajurveda, an estimated 4,000-year-old Hindu scripture .
This restriction is not limited to the first menstruation. Women can’t enter the worshipping room, usually a separate room holding idols of gods, until five days of menstruation have passed. Women who are menstruating can’t participate in funeral rituals for a week.
But other restrictions, such as staying in a separate room during menstruation, began later to avoid sanitation problems, Bhattarai says. This restriction is not in the original scriptures, he clarifies, citing misinterpretation of them by some priests.
“To live separately for more than five days in a dark room and excreting in the same room are the malpractices that were started later,” Bhattarai says.
Jamuna Siwakoti, a lecturer in the gender studies
program at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University, says that practitioners of seclusion during menstruation attribute it to religious scriptures.
“The scriptures were written by men and, therefore, these rituals are practiced to make women subservient,” Siwakoti says. “To lock up a girl during her first menstruation is appalling, but people are so blinded by faith that every girl born in the Brahmin and Chhetri communities have to face it once in their lives.”
Another Hindu priest and Sanskrit scholar, Damodar Sharma, says he is not familiar with any convincing logic in the religious scriptures regarding seclusion during menstruation. But society has an unshakeable belief in the rituals carried out by their ancestors, and people follow everything that has been the custom, he says.
Devaki Thapa, 38, an educated housewife who lives in Kathmandu, says she plans to lock her 11-year-old daughter up when she starts her cycle for the first time. She says it is tradition.
“We have been practicing this for a long time,” she says. “And suddenly if we stop doing it, then the gods would be angry, and something bad can happen to our family.”
She also cites societal pressure.
“I also fear that if I do not follow the ritual, I would be criticized by my relatives and neighbors,” she says. “How can I alone leave this tradition? Therefore, I have to
continue this tradition when my daughter starts her monthly cycle.”
Sandhya Adhikari, a 55-year-old housewife in Kathmandu, believes in the sanctity of the practice that women can’t touch others’ food during menstruation. Menstrual blood is unclean so women shouldn’t cook or worship God during their periods for sanitary reasons, she says.
Adhikari says the fact that menstrual cramps made it difficult for some women to have sexual intercourse led ancestors to introduce the restriction that women can’t touch men during their monthly period.
“However, it is not good that women are locked up in a room during their first menstruation,” she says.
Pradhan of WaterAid categorizes this isolation as gender-based violence.
“To lock up a girl in a dark room during her first menstruation as if she has committed some crime is violence,” she says.
Instead, she says that organizations should counsel young girls that menstruation is a natural process.
“The focus should be on how to maintain sanitation during this period,” she says. “Also, they should be made aware about difficulties during menstruation. If not, it could adversely affect their reproductive health.”
Nandani Shah, 11, who is studying in grade six in Meridian International School in Kathmandu, says she fears what might happen to her when she gets her first period. When her sister had stomach pain, her mother told Nandani that it was because she was menstruating.
“My sister cried very much because of stomach pain,” Nandani says. “I heard that blood comes out. I have not started my periods, but I fear the same thing will happen to me.
Nandani says her friend recently started menstruating and didn’t come to school for 12 days. She lived in somebody else’s home for 10 days. She says that menstruation is a taboo subject.
“We should not talk about these things,” she says. “It is very embarrassing. I have never seen anything written in my textbook about this and why it happens.”
Young girls are nervous during their first menstruation and need counseling, says pediatrician Dr. Ranjana Sharma, who practices at the College of Medical and Allied Sciences under the Eastern Regional University. Locking them up in dark rooms and forbidding them to look at or speak to anyone may affect their mental health.
The lack of sunlight increases the risk of depression and even infection. There’s also the risk of heavy bleeding, which could result in anemia, she says.
“Such malpractices are rooted in the society,” Sharma says. “Organizations working in the social sector should run campaigns against it.”
In Nepal, there are many organizations that work to bring about changes in the social sector. But no local organization focuses on providing counseling to the girls and their parents before menstruation, says Lamichhane of WaterAid.
Anna Ui Dhalaigh, a project officer for UNICEF, says the international organization educates girls in seven of Nepal’s 75 districts about sanitation and hygiene, including ways to ensure cleanliness during menstruation, to make pads from clothes and to reuse them.
The Family Planning Association of Nepal, a nongovernmental organization working in sexual and reproductive health, and local community radio stations are partnering with UNICEF in this sector, Dhalaigh says. Their joint broadcast programs cover health, hygiene and sanitation issues, including reproductive health.
But Dhalaigh says more needs to be done.
“UNICEF’s work in not adequate in this sector,” she says.
In 2011, WaterAid asked 10 artists in Kathmandu to artistically portray the superstitions regarding menstruation. The organization later displayed their portrayals at an exhibition for representatives from the government, nongovernmental agencies and the media.
The visitors appreciated the program and suggested that such programs should be conducted regularly, Pradhan says.
Siwakoti says programs like this should take place in villages as well.
The government has included menstruation in the sixth-grade curriculum at 100 public schools since 2009 as a pilot program, says Baburam Karakheti, officer of the Curriculum Development Centre of the Ministry of Education. The government has decided to expand this curriculum to sixth-graders in all public schools in the coming school year, which begins in April.
Poudel says that the suffering she faced four years ago when she menstruated for the first time still haunts her. She asks for a counseling campaign targeted at prepubescent girls and their parents and guardians to prevent other girls from enduring similar rituals.
“I have heard there are many NGOs working for women[´s] rights,” she says. “But why are they not working effectively on this issue?”
This article was originally published by the Global Press Institute.