Most of us can relate to the pain and inconvenience of having a period. What's hard is imagining just how much worse it could be.
In Simikot, a region in the far north west of Nepal, some women are banished from the home and sent to live in animal sheds or goths while they are menstruating, as well as up to 20 days after childbirth. This ingrained cultural practice is called chaupadi.
Humla is one of the highest and most inaccessible regions in the world. I flew there in a small twin otter plane through steep valleys with snow-capped mountains at wing level. With a wry smile, the pilot made a terrifying mid-air U-turn landing on a tiny flat patch on the side of a mountain. Unless you make a few days trek to the nearest road, this airstrip is the only access to the isolated mountain community of Simikot. People here rely on subsistence farming and minimal trade with Tibet. Isolation, poverty, and a harsh mountain landscape make existence a matter of day-to-day survival.
The Himalayan sun turned snow into a brown foul-smelling slush, a mix of animal excrement and meltwater. We trudged through the village searching for a goth. As the temperature dropped, the slush turned to ice. We skidded down towards the old town inhabited by the Dalit community, an impoverished low caste who worship both Hindu and local gods. The geographic remoteness means that traditions in this place remain strongly intact.
Thick smoke billowed out of the goth and inside was dark apart from the glowing screens of mobiles. About 12 teenagers sat on the floor tucked in heavy blankets. The atmosphere was more like a sleepover; the girls played Nepali pop on their mobiles, singing, gossiping, and bitching. I was in town to shoot a documentary about Nepal; when my sound guy turned up, they burst into fits of giggles and flirtatiously taunted him until he had to leave.
Romali, a 16 year old with attitude, told me that we had to go—then she laughed it off, clearly messing with us. She said the goth is shared by whoever is menstruating as it's safer. Rape is a serious risk when practicing chau as many women sleep alone and unprotected. The girls were huddled round an open fire, coughing because of the poor ventilation. Romali said we should come and collect wood with her tomorrow. Women are not allowed in the house during menstruation, so they often engage in hard labor outdoors.
**Read more: Deep Inside Loveboat, *Asia's* Lesbian Oasis**
Collecting wood involves an almost vertical trek down a canyon. The area surrounding Simikot has been deforested so people travel long distances to get fuel. The girls loaded wood into massive baskets holding at least their body weight. These conditions take their toll: they make women more vulnerable to health problems such as respiratory diseases, prolapses, and bent spines due to the heavy loads. The average life expectancy for women here is only 53.
Many women used to give birth in the goth, leading to high infant mortality. But local midwife Gita Lama explained this had changed, thanks to a new government incentive that offers £10 to women who give birth in a local health clinic. Laxmi, a 22-year-old woman, had just given birth in the local clinic. But instead of going home, she went straight into the goth. Laxmi told us " If you give birth to a girl you have to stay longer in the goth. Boys are more important so you can go back to the house earlier. I gave birth to a boy so I'm happy."
The conditions were squalid for her and her newborn baby. She squatted on a floor damp from fresh donkey shit, struggling to get a fire going, making so much smoke that our translator almost choked. Eyes streaming, Laxmi complained: "Because of the smoke I get a headache and my clothes are always dirty. It's very uncomfortable."
She said her husband didn't want them sleeping in the goth. Why did she practice chau, then? Her answer was simple: "If we do not practice religion, the gods will bring us trouble. I have no choice but to worship." Laxmi casually took a large knife from under her blanket and held it to the fire, the blade glinting in the light. "This is protection for me and the baby." She looked afraid. "Bad spirits will get in and harm my baby."
Women like Laxmi face a far worse danger than ghosts. Nepal is ranked one of the highest countries for infant mortality in the world. "Two to three women used to die every year during or shortly after childbirth," Gita Lama said, sounding exasperated. "We advise women to stay in the hospital. But there are those who still choose to stay in the goth."
Laxmi was taking her first bath since giving birth five days ago. She had to wash in the snow outside of the house because she is considered impure. She said she was aware of health dangers. "If we ignore the doctors' advice we will still survive, but if we disobey God, God will punish us. God is more powerful than man."
I had imagined that chaupadi was a symptom of a patriarchal society that subjugated women. In reality, it's more about superstition, though one could argue that superstitions result from values and norms invented to repress women. Gita Lama assures me that it's to do with the "in-laws": they decide who stays out in the cold.
Read more: Being the Fat Girl in a Big Fat Asian Family
Change comes slow to Simikot. Although not all women subscribe to the practice, the culture of chaupadi is reinforced through storytelling and myth. For the time being, at least, menstrual and post-natal exile in Humla will be carried well into the 21st century.