Menstrual Exile: A Woman Has Suffocated to Death in a 'Chhaupadi' Hut in Nepal

A woman has been found dead in a village in Nepal after she was sent into exile during her menstruation cycle, a practice still widespread in the country in spite of a 2005 supreme court ban and the criminalization of the act in 2017.

Hindu people in rural areas of Nepal believe that failing to isolate women during their period will anger gods, and this will result in bad luck that will affect the entire family.

The practice, known as Chhaupadi, which translates from Nepali as "untouchable", dictates that women who are menstruating are impure and cannot interact with other members of the community, attend public events or even touch foods, animals and crops.

Isolation, usually in huts or even in cattle sheds, has resulted in several deaths in the past. The most common cause of death is from smoke inhalation, followed by wild animal attacks.

The 21-year-old woman, found dead on January 8, died due to smoke inhalation after she lit a fire in the hut she had been confined to, government administrator Tul Bahadur Kawcha said, according to the Associated Press.

In 2016, the body of another 21-year-old woman was discovered in a shed in Achham district. A 15-year-old girl met the same fate in December of the same year.

Chhaupadi  in Nepal
In this photograph taken on February 3, 2017, Nepalese women Pabitra Giri (L) and Yum Kumari Giri (R) sit by a fire as they live in a Chhaupadi hut during their menstruation period in Surkhet District, some 520km west of Kathmandu. The practice of banning women from the home when they are menstruating is linked to Hinduism and considers women untouchable at this time. A 21-year-old woman died in a Nepalese village after she was sent in exile during her menstruation cycle in January 2018. PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images

Women subjected to Chhaupadi also face several health problems including "pneumonia, diarrhea, chest infection, suffocation, and respiratory tract infection," 2015 research by the University of Southern Denmark said.

"During those days although women are forbidden from going inside the house, they are still expected to do more laborious work outside like carrying heavy loads, digging, collecting firewood and grass despite the lack of a nutritious diet and comfort," the report continued. It added that even women who have recently given birth are isolated.

The supreme court of Nepal outlawed the practice in 2005, but a 2011 report by the United Nations said the practice was still widespread in "the Far and Mid Western Regions of Nepal among all castes and groups of Hindus."

The report added that, during isolation, women are not allowed to consume milk or ghee while they are menstruating or pregnant, but should only eat flatbread with salt, meaning that they fail to meet their nutritional needs.

They are barred from taking a bath or even reading and writing. As a result, they also experience mental hardship and feelings of insecurity, guilt and humiliation, as well as sadness and depression.

The U.N. has condemned Chhaupadi, claiming that it violates human rights and promote discrimination.

The law passed by parliament in 2017, which will come into effect in August 2018, punishes people who force women into exile during their period with up to three months in jail and a fine of 3,000 Nepalese rupees ($29; £21).

At the time the law was passed, lawmaker Krishna Bhakta Pokhrel, from the committee that drafted the bill, told AP: "People will be discouraged to follow this discriminatory custom due to fear of punishment."

But others said the law alone was not enough to discourage the practice.

"Fear of punishment will not stop people from following this custom who think women are impure during menstruation," Gauri Kumari Oli, a female parliamentarian, said.

"Government and non-governmental agencies should start to do more to raise awareness."