This article originally appeared on VICE AU.
Earlier this year, 35-year-old Nepali woman Amba Bohara and her two young children were found dead inside a tiny, windowless cowshed. Amba had been menstruating, and the three of them had barricaded themselves inside the hut in keeping with chhaupadi: a centuries-old tradition that still exists in parts of western Nepal, where a person is considered dirty or impure while on their period and so banished from their family home. It’s thought that Amba and her kids suffocated to death after lighting a fire during the cold winter night. Weeks later, 21-year-old Parbati Bogati is thought to have died in almost identical circumstances.
The controversial chhaupadi tradition—which was banned by the supreme court in 2005 and criminalised by the government last year—dictates where a person can sleep, what they can eat, and with whom they can interact while they're on their period, The Guardian reports. Every month, in villages throughout Nepal, people are being sequestered to so-called “period huts” for fear that their deities will punish them if they don’t separate themselves from the family home. Here they face the risk of snake bites, smoke inhalation, and disease, as well as sexual abuse.
Dhami Jakari, a Nepali shaman and healer, told The Guardian in 2016 that “if they go into the kitchen before their period stops, they will be possessed. The Christian gods don’t care if you’re menstruating or if you’re dirty, but our Hindu gods do.” Dechen Lama, a lawyer at the Forum for Women, Law and Development, explained that “It (chhaupadi) has been followed from the very beginning, from their ancestors, so if they discontinue with that kind of ritual, they fear that the god will punish them.” A 2010 survey by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor found that one in five women throughout Nepal practised the tradition, while in the mid-western and far-western regions that number was closer to one in two.
Following last year’s criminalisation, those who still impose chhaupadi face penalties such as a 3,000 rupee (about $36 AUD) fine and a three-month jail term. The government has also threatened to withdraw state food support from certain cases, prompting people to destroy their period huts and abandon the practice. But women’s rights activists claim that the law changes have had little impact, The New York Times reports, with many adherents finding it hard to let go of the tradition in the face of societal norms, religion, and the prevailing taboo around menstruation in certain parts of the country.
Women and children continue to die, but thus far, no one has been charged for following chhaupadi.