Nepal is taking steps to push back against long-standing cultural practices that are harmful to women and girls. This week, parliament passed a law spelling out punishment for people who ostracize menstruating women, a practice known as chhaupadi. The government also seeks to curb practices like slavery and the dowry system.
Chhaupadi is still practiced in rural Nepal, more frequently in the more heavily Hindu western part of the country. The tradition’s practitioners force women to spend the duration of their menstrual periods in “period sheds” or livestock huts, where they are in danger of animal attacks, infections that result from unsanitary conditions, and freezing cold temperatures.
Forcing menstruating women into solitude has been illegal for a decade, but until this law’s passage, there was no set of guidelines for how violators would be punished. Now, people caught violating the anti-dowry, anti-chhaupadi law will be fined up to 3,000 Nepalese rupees, or a little less than $30. They can also be sent to jail for up to three months.
The average Nepali spends around 70,000 rupees, or about $700, annually.
In addition to the law’s passage, the country’s president Bidya Devi Bhandari, speaking in Kathmandu, decried “superstition-based practices.” Child marriage continues to be a scourge, with 10 percent of girls being married off prior to age 15 and 37 percent being married off before 18. Bhandari added that these practices negatively impact the country’s economy, robbing women and girls of their potential to contribute to the economy.
About 29 million people live in Nepal, but among those millions are 100 ethnic groups and dozens of spoken languages. There’s vast disparity between opportunities available to women and girls in population centers and those living on the edges of society. Many families, for example, ignore laws requiring equal educational opportunities for girls and boys and keep girls home to work in the fields or in the house. Men are the breadwinners, and because tourism is the country’s largest industry, they often spend months of the year away from their hometowns earning money during high season in the mountains. Women are expected to stay home and keep house.
Critics of the law say it doesn’t go far enough, that in addition to threatening to punish violators, the government should help educate rural communities about hygiene.
Nepal held its first successful local elections in 20 years this May. The new law and the president’s speech are parts of a push to modernize Nepal’s approach to gender and eliminate traditions that hurt women and, by extension, the economy as a whole.
The new anti-chhaupadi law will go into effect next August.