Period poverty: Women and girls still being banished to huts during menstruation
Periods are a natural process and a part of nearly every girl’s life.
Over the past few years, the term “period poverty” has entered mainstream culture in Ireland. This occurs when periods become a financial burden for women and girls, for example people in low income households, homeless or those living in direct provision.
With hygiene and hand washing in the news more than ever before thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, period poverty is a growing issue, not only in Ireland but around the world.
Without access to toilets or sanitary products at school, many young girls around the world miss out on their education — and put their lives on hold, as they have little choice but to stay at home. In fact, poverty and stigma has a huge impact on girls’ education. It’s estimated that one in 10 girls in Africa will miss school when they have their periods. In Africa and Asia, missing days at school can lead girls to drop out altogether, putting them at greater risk of child marriage, and getting pregnant at a younger age.
International NGOs like ActionAid are continuing to work closely with marginalised communities in Africa and Asia, to improve access to toilets, showers, sanitary products and education. But deep-rooted cultural practices effect this work.
In parts of western Nepal, some women and girls are banished from their homes to live in huts or animal sheds during their periods. This practice, called chhaupadi, has been illegal in Nepal since 2005. But deeply-held views mean that chhaupadi continues in some communities. 15 girls and women died in these huts in the last 13 years.
Ishu is 14 years old and is sent away from home during menstruation. She dreads getting her period because she hates staying alone inside the chhaupadi hut.
“The goth [hut] I’m living in is made from mud,” Ishu says. “It doesn’t have a window and during the night-time I feel afraid. I feel scared of snakes and ghosts. When I was sleeping in the night, I felt scared some bad people would come and attack me.”
When Ishu is living in the hut she finds it difficult to manage her period. She must walk to the nearest river to bathe—a gruelling two-hour walk away. Without access to sanitary towels, she has to use rags to soak up the blood. These can cause serious and painful infections. Alone and isolated in the chhaupadi hut, Ishu misses the comforts of home: “I can’t bring warm clothes to the hut—that’s why I feel cold in the winter. There are no windows and during the summer season I feel really warm.”
Given the dangers facing girls during chhaupadi, it is unsurprising that parents like Durga, Ishu’s mum, feel unhappy about banishing their daughters during their periods. “I am very scared when my daughter is out in the chau goth [hut]. I am scared if some bad boy comes and rapes her,” Durga says. “We don’t feel good about practising chhaupadi, but since other communities are practising it we are forced to [do] it.”
The reasons why chhaupadi continues are complex. In parts of western Nepal, the custom has been carried out for centuries and is intimately linked with local belief systems and ways of life. In rural communities, people rely on the crops they harvest and the animals they rear for their livelihoods. If menstruating women and girls do not follow these strict local customs, this could have serious consequences. It is believed that crops may fail, and people and animals may sicken or die.
In some parts of the country, there are restrictions on bathing. Washing and drying thought to be done secretly or in a hidden corner so that it cannot be seen by others. It was also believed that menstrual fluids may be misused for black magic, so women should wash only at night when others were asleep. Menstrual flow was seen as dirty, polluting, and shameful. And so women hide menstrual cloths for fear of being cursed. This taboo and myths put women and girls in many health hazards.
Likewise, in Decha, Ethiopia, where ActionAid is supporting a woman’s rights programme, funded by Irish Aid, Department of Foreign Affairs, women in the community are isolated during the menstrual cycle. Meaning the husband lets his wife or daughter spend the night out in the cold. Menstruation is a less understood phenomena among men here. And has seen men continue to subject women to untold suffering and inhumane treatment.
But there is hope. ActionAid has been working in western Nepal for more than 10 years. We have set up women’s groups, where local women can come together to find solutions to the challenges they face. During these meetings – called ‘reflect circles’ – women have the opportunity to discuss the impact of chhaupadi on their lives and its illegal status.
This fear of being isolated and ostracised is one that is shared by many, as a local police constable, Rajkumari, knows all too well. She’s working on the ground in western Nepal, alongside ActionAid, to end the practice of chhaupadi and raise awareness about its negative impact amongst the local community.
“The women and girls should not be kept in the hut, as this [menstruation] is a natural process,” Rajkumari says. “If they are kept in the hut, it is discriminating [against] them. In some cases, women and girls are losing their lives - they are dying in the hut - so it should be stopped.”
In Ethiopia, ActionAid is using an innovative behaviour change approach to challenge harmful cultural practices. Last year, in Decha, the organisation supported the women’s group to put up billboards, which read “a good husband doesn’t not isolate his wife during menstruation period.” These are already having a positive effect, with some women already reporting that they are no longer forced to sleep outside.
In times of humanitarian crisis, women and girls still need sanitary towels, wipes and soap. ActionAid distributes dignity kits containing sanitary pads, soap and clean underwear, so women and girls can manage their periods safely and with dignity. This work has been ongoing during the coronavirus pandemic, with a particular focus on girls and women living in refugee camps who would otherwise have no access to sanitary products.
Words by Action Aid's Jo-Ann Ward.