The risky life of women exiled due to menstruation in Nepal

In Nepal, a tradition regarding the impurity of menstrual blood forces women to exile themselves, known as chaupadi.

Photographer Poulomi Basu’s mother, a widow, cannot wear red. In India, the birthplace of Basu, the color red symbolizes purity and sin, and is also used to mark joyful occasions. Traditional Hindu culture dictates that widows can only wear white saris—the color of mourning and death—for the rest of their lives. Additionally, they are forbidden from attending celebrations or remarrying.

In the 16 years since her father’s death, 33-year-old Basu has persuaded her mother, a widow, to replace her white saris with brighter fabrics, but she still does not wear red or pink. Basu has managed to change the course of a repressive tradition in one of the most important lives in her world: her mother’s. ‘You start one by one’, Basu explains her approach to creating change.

“As I grew up, I realized how customs and traditions were used as forces to subdue and control women“, including the use of color, she explains.

In her series ‘A Ritual of Exile‘, Basu examines red as a color associated with menstrual blood. Her long-term goal is to contribute to ending the entrenched Hindu practice of chaupadi, which isolates menstruating women and perpetuates a normalized cycle of violence perpetuated by custom, tradition, and religion.

Her work, photographed in Nepal, reveals the extreme situations that women in rural regions endure for one week out of every month during the 35 to 45 years of their menstrual cycle. Women are banished from their homes, seen as impure, untouchable, and capable of causing disasters for people, livestock, and land when they bleed. Some stay in nearby sheds, while others must travel 10 to 15 minutes on foot through dense forests to reach remote huts. During their exile, women face—and frequently die from—high temperatures, suffocation from fires they light to stay warm in the winter, snake venom, and sexual assault.

Basu began her project in 2013, visiting Nepal an average of two weeks per year. Access is difficult and often depends on guardians such as husbands, mothers-in-law, teachers, and temporarily marginalized women. Basu, who had to walk six to eight hours over hilly terrain to reach the villages where chaupadi takes place, has had time to reflect. ‘I couldn’t believe how much pain there was in that beauty and that landscape that we associate with freedom, adventure, and escapism,’ she explains. For Basu, Nepal’s lofty and tumultuous rural landscape—whether a brilliant starry sky or the clouds of an impending storm—has come to symbolize the suffering endured by its women.

“My work is very quiet because much of it has to do with silent struggle and silent protest” that accompany the oppression of women in a patriarchal society, Basu points out.

Basu thinks of Lakshmi’s story, a woman in her early thirties with three children. Her husband left her five years ago and never returned. But Lakshmi obediently goes into exile when she menstruates. Her mother-in-law insists on it. Lakshmi is forced to take her son with her to the remote highland.

Next is the story of a schoolteacher, one of the few women Basu met in the villages who did not practice chaupadi. When her best friend died after being raped in exile, her husband supported her decision to abandon the tradition. Ultimately, for Basu, this was an encouraging moment in the chaupadi story.

One of her favorite images shows 34-year-old Chandra Tiruva and her 2-year-old son, Madan, sharing a hut with 14-year-old Mangu Bika. Women practicing chaupadi sleep close to each other. ‘It’s a very tender moment,’ Basu says. ‘Even in exile, the child seeks the mother’s breast. It’s a moment of peace and love within that space.’

Basu knows what it feels like when others make decisions for you and the anger and frustration it causes. ‘I was not allowed to enter a kitchen when I was menstruating, and religious festivals were off-limits every time I bled,’ she recalls.

She is also familiar with the strength of a mother who does everything she can to help her daughter break free from a cycle of suffering and injustice. After her father’s death, Basu’s older brother, who was quite conservative, became the head of the family. Basu decided to leave home and, with the unexpected financial assistance and support of her mother, moved to Bombay. This was a significant catalyst for the unburdened life she leads now. ‘Not many people have the alternative I had,’ Basu admits. ‘If [my mother] had cried and collapsed and said I couldn’t leave, I wouldn’t have gone.’

In her photographs, Basu acknowledges the emotional connection she establishes between her own experiences and mothers instinctively protecting their children in extreme circumstances.

Although the Supreme Court of Nepal declared chaupadi illegal in 2005, the women Basu photographs have been educated to accept the tradition without protest. But keeping quiet does not mean they have accepted chaupadi for their daughters. A few have secretly asked Basu, ‘Would you take my daughter? Take her to the city with you. Take her, run.’

The path to revolution is not easy, Basu says.

You can view more of Poulomi Basu’s photographs on her website.

“The first time I went into chaupadi, I was afraid of snakes,” says 14-year-old Mangu Bika, who shares a hut with 34-year-old Chandra Tiruva. “Now, I’m more afraid of men and being kidnapped. I’m very worried about what will happen to me after I get married. When I grow up, I want to be a teacher because I enjoy going to school. When I go to school, we all sit together, and there is no discrimination against menstruating women.”

The practice of chaupadi, which includes subsisting on a basic diet of rice and lentils, makes it difficult for Tula to go to school and also fulfill her duty of earning money for her family. She is considering dropping out of school, Basu says.

Ranga Joshi, 42 years old, shares her hut with Minu, 14. ‘Sometimes, I manage to get food, other times I have to go hungry,’ says Joshi. ‘My children are still small, so they can’t bear it. My husband works in India for six months a year. When he is home, he brings me food. Men don’t understand what menstruation is. How could they? It doesn’t happen in their bodies.’

A chaupadi hut shared by Pabitra Pariyar, 14, and Dharma Nepali Pariyar, 25, in the Surkhet district, Nepal. ‘It’s for God,’ says Dharma. ‘God created humans, and he will be angry if we don’t obey the rules. Our brothers will be angry too.’

When 14-year-old Uma had her first period, she didn’t tell anyone for fear of being exiled, as Basu recounts. When she could no longer hide her bleeding, her family found out. As punishment, they forced her to sleep on hay bales in the barn.

Storm clouds loom over the rural landscape of Surkhet district in Nepal.

“When people come to see us in the chaupadi shed, I feel ashamed,” 16-year-old Thyra Khuri Bishwa told Basu.

Devi Ram Dhamala, 59, is a traditional healer. “Traditional healers often verbally and physically abuse young girls to cure them, with or without menstruation, because they believe they are possessed by an evil spirit,” Basu says.

Shiv Pujan, 30 years old, in a framed photograph held by his wife Mamata, 17 years old, in a village in the Saptari district of Nepal. Pujan died from electrocution while working in India. As a result of her husband’s death, widows like Mamata are excluded from society. “Losing their husband means the woman suffers for sins committed in a past life,” Basu says.

Mangu Bika, 14 years old, shares a hut with Chandra Tiruva, 34 years old, and her 2-year-old son, Madan. “Traditionally, it is believed that our kul devtaa (household deity) will get angry, that’s why they sent me into chaupadi,” Tiruva told Basu. “I don’t like being here. My mother-in-law forces me. What can I do? She takes care of my other three children during this period. But my mother-in-law makes my 2-year-old son practice chaupadi alone because he sleeps with me.”

During the annual Rishi Panchami festival in Kathmandu, Nepal, women perform the ritual of washing away the sins committed during menstruation.

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