Updated: December 22, 2016 11:58 AM GMT
The menstruation hut where Nepalese teenager Roshani Tiruwa died. (Photo by Menuka Dhungana)
On the afternoon of Dec. 17, Roshani Tiruwa spent almost three hours walking and gathering firewood which she would use to fuel a fire to keep herself warm during the cold winter night.
Fifteen-year-old Roshani, who was menstruating, was sleeping alone in a narrow, congested and poorly ventilated menstrual hut. Like other girls and women in her remote Gajra Village in Nepal's Accham district, Roshani was banished during menstruation to a hut made up of mud and stone, with a narrow door and no windows.
She had already slept one night inside and had four more nights alone while observing Chaupadi, a common practice in the remote hilly districts in the west of the Himalayan nation.
During menstruation women are forbidden from entering their own houses and temples, touching livestock and using communal toilets and drinking water, as they are considered 'impure' for five to seven days.
But before she could complete her four days inside the menstrual hut, Roshani was discovered dead by her father on the morning of Dec.18.
"It was already 7.30 a.m. She hadn't woken up. I called her but the door was locked from inside and there was no response. I kicked it open and found her lying rigid on the floor. Burnt firewood and ashes were on her pillow side," said Bharat Tiruwa, Roshani's father.
He informed police and within a few hours, villagers, police and women's rights activists had gathered in front of Tiruwa's family house. The preliminary statement from police said Roshani had suffocated after lighting a fire in a hut with no ventilation.
This is second death within a month related to Chaupadi in the district.
"This is very sad. In this modern time, society is treating menstruation as a shame and social taboo and taking the lives of innocent girls and woman," said Sarswati Rawal, coordinator of the community-level committee on gender-based violence against women in Accham district.
Rawal said poverty, lack of education and awareness and the absence of punishment for offenders are the key reasons for Chaupadi like traditions remaining in society.
Practice is still common
Since 2006, at least nine girls and women have died in similar huts during their menstrual cycle in the district, according to the estimates provided by the District Police Office in Accham.
In the recent years, local government authorities, non-government organizations and civil society groups have initiated awareness campaign and programs to end Chaupadi in Accham and neighboring districts, where the practice is still common.
Campaigns to dismantle menstrual huts, create awareness among the villagers about hygiene and encourage families to allow the women to stay inside the house, in a separate room, have been launched. But families in rural villagers are still commonly practicing Chaupadi.
Gajra village was declared a Chaupadi-free village last year, after local authorities in the presence of representatives from political parties and activists, destroyed and burnt huts and sheds used to observe the practice.
"But it seems the decision was made only on paper. There is still a lot to be done to bring real change to the attitude of families who think menstruating women are impure," said Kaushal Raj Sharma, chief district officer (CDO) of Accham, who was appointed eight months ago.
Bharat Tiruwa said that "like many other families in our village, my wife and daughter slept in the hut whenever they were menstruating. Everyone was sending their girls and women to huts so I did too." He had built the hut about eight years ago.
"We fear God will be angry and something bad will happen in the family if she stays in the house during her period and touches things," he said.
A day after Roshani's death, Sharma and members of major political parties from the district, women rights activists and local community members, destroyed the hut where she died. They also dismantled other huts in the village and district.
The Supreme Court has already outlawed Chaupadi in 2007, considering it a harmful practice. It then directed five relevant ministries to address this problem.
"The court directed the Ministry of Women and Children to bring in guidelines. But a decade later, we are still waiting for the government to formulate guidelines and approve it," said advocate Meera Dhungana, chairperson of the Forum of Women, Law and Development.
Even though the court considers Chaupadi a harmful practice, there is currently no mechanism to prosecute offenders, she said. "It is only when the incidents are reported that the government and concerned agencies come forward and talk about it," she said. Dhungana is advocating for a legal framework to take action against those promoting Chaupadi in remote villages in the country.
Roshani's death has drawn a lot of attention in the district and outside of it. The local authority in agreement with the other stakeholders have decided to take an approach that will prevent families who practice Chaupadi from getting government services like citizenship, birth certificates and other incentives.
"I have realized my mistake. We have destroyed the hut and from now onwards I will not send my wife and my daughter outside even if God curses our family," says Bharat Tiruwa, who is observing the mourning ritual for his eldest daughter.
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