The Risky Lives of Women Sent Into Exile—For Menstruating

In Nepal, a traditional belief about the impurity of menstrual blood means women and girls are banished to makeshift huts.

By Sarah Stacke
Photographs by Poulomi Basu

"I am not happy. I do not want to get married. I hope my husband gets a job in a foreign city. Then I can come back to my mother's home and stay for as long as I want to," 12-year-old Anjali Kumari King told photographer Poulomi Basu. It is a popular belief in some areas of Nepal that if a girl is married before she begins menstruation, her immediate family will ascend to heaven. Child marriage and Chaupadi are linked, says Basu, as they both involve ideas around pre-and post-menstrual purity.

"The first time I went into a chaupadi I was scared of snakes," says Mangu Bika, 14, who shares a menstrual hut with Chandra Tiruva, 34. "Now I am more scared of men and of getting kidnapped. I am really worried about what will happen to me after marriage. I want to grow up and be a teacher because I like going to school. When we go to school, we all sit together and there is no discrimination against menstruating women." Photograph by Poulomi Basu
The practice of Chapaudi, which includes subsisting on a basic diet of rice and lentils, makes it difficult for Tula to be in school and also fulfill her obligation to earn money for her family. She is considering quitting school, Basu says. Photograph by Poulomi Basu
Ranga Joshi, 42, shares her hut with first-time observer Minu, 14. "Sometimes I get food, sometimes I have to stay hungry,” Joshi says. “My children are still small so they can’t really manage. My husband works in India six months of the year. When he is at home he brings food to me. Men don’t understand what menstruation is. How could they? It’s not happening in their bodies."

A chaupadi hut shared by Pabitra Pariyar, 14, and Dharma Nepali Pariyar, 25, in the Surkhet district of Nepal. “It’s for God," says Dharma. "God creates humans and will get mad if we do not obey the rules. Our brothers will also get mad.”

Uma, 14, did not tell anyone when her period first started for fear she would be sent into exile, Basu says. When she was no longer able to hide the bleeding, her family found out. As punishment she was sent to sleep atop bales of hay in the barn.

Storm clouds gather over the rural landscape of the Surkhet district in Nepal. Photograph by Poulomi Basu
"When people come and see us at the Chaupadi [hut], I feel ashamed," 16-year-old Thyra Khuri Bishwa Karma told Basu.

Devi Ram Dhamala, 59, is a traditional healer. "Traditional healers often use extreme verbal and physical abuse to heal young girls who are ill, during menstruation or otherwise, believing they are possessed by evil spirit," Basu says. Photograph by Poulomi Basu
Shiv Pujan, 30, in a framed photograph, held by his wife Mamata, 17, in a village in the Saptari district of Nepal. Pujan was electrocuted and died while working in India. As a result of her husband's death, widows like Mamata are ostracized from society. "To lose her husband means the woman is suffering for sins committed in a past life," Basu says. Photograph by Poulomi Basu
The landscape surrounding the village of Tatopani.

Mangu Bika, 14, shares a hut with Chandra Tiruva, 34, and Tiruva’s child, Madan, 2. "It is the traditional belief that our kul devtaa (house god) will be angered, so I was sent to chaupad,” Tiruva told Basu. “I don't like being here. My mother-in-law forces me. What can I do? She looks after my other three children during this period. But my mother-in-law even makes my two-year-old child observe chaupadi just because he sleeps with me."

Saraswati, 16, experienced post-partum bleeding after the birth of her baby. She and her newborn were sent into exile for 15 days, during which she fell ill. The photographer arranged for Saraswati to be transported to the nearest hospital, several hours away.

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