Rabina Kumari Nepali clambered up the embankment, grasping strands of dried grass to hoist herself. She looked sheepishly over at me, as I walked up the pathway two feet to her left. “I can’t walk on the path,” she said.
She gave wide berth to the front yard as she led us to a small hut. Across from the traditional two-story house, the squat mud-brick shelter sat on the edge of the stable yard crowded with buffalo. The wide, black animals stamped down slimy pools of excrement, hay and garbage; chickens clucked and foraged.
The entry to the dark shed was shoulder height, the sturdy ceiling so short that she stooped inside. Her blankets were piled on the roof since the morning. She had slept here last night—tucked away from the house, with the cattle—because she is menstruating.
In Rima, as in many villages in Achham, women are considered untouchable while they are menstruating. Rabina was practicing “chaupadi” a tradition in which women are isolated from their families each month. Menstruating women cannot come near the house, which is why Rabina stayed out of the yard and off the path.
So kitchen chores are replaced with outdoor tasks. Menstruating women feed the animals or trek through the forest collecting firewood. Each day they purify themselves by bathing and washing all their bedding, often at taps far from the village. Shut away from the house, many girls struggle to study in the dark sheds.
Rabina’s “chaupadi goth,” as the shed is called, was nicer than many in the village. Some of her friends slept with cows or goats in barns on the lower floors of their houses. One slept in a half-constructed shed, covered only with a flimsy tarp for a roof.
Dressed in a slick leather jacket over her fitted red kurta, Rabina, 14, was the picture of adolescence. Optimistic that she will achieve her dream of becoming a teacher, she also clearly grasped her place in the world. She lives in poverty, alone with her landless mother who works as a sharecropper.
Rabina’s father left the family and moved to India seven years ago. He has since sent neither word nor money.
Every family we interviewed in Rima had someone in India, or someone just back. Connections to the superpower to the south permeated this sleepy village stacked on the ridge of one of Achham’s countless mountains. There is a constant ebb and flow of migrants across the border.
The December gang rape of the 23-year-old physiotherapy intern in Delhi occurred when we were in Rima. Disconnected from the power and cell grids, we heard nothing of the case at the time. But the ensuing discussions about India’s rape culture and the breadth and depth of women’s oppression in India are deeply connected to the lives of the women and girls we met in Achham.
Expecting women to tromp through cesspools each month and sleep with animals is a kind of violence against women and their sexuality. Chaupadi is not rape. In fact some girls think chaupadi is fun, when their cycles align with their friends and they have group slumber parties in the sheds. But beneath the obligation to practice chaupadi is the same degradation of women that underlies India’s rape epidemic.
“It’s the issue of dignity,” explained Samita Pradhan, a passionate women’s rights activist at the Centre for Agro-Ecology and Development based in Kathmandu. Women “don’t have any life for themselves. Their cattle, oxen—even they have monetary value, but women do not have that value.”
Pradhan connects Nepal’s various women’s rights issues: domestic violence, child marriage, chaupadi, maternal mortality. According to Pradhan, each of them is a “social issue. It is an education issue. It is a women’s empowerment issue.”
It is easy to fault men for the ingrained mistreatment of women, and at first glance the men in Rima seemed disrespectful and lazy. During one interview one husband sat drinking tea, watching his 9-month pregnant wife beat rice. He unflinchingly accepted his power position in the household and his wife’s obligation to finish household work.
Power is a key factor in sexual assault; public health experts frame rape as a violent assertion of power. But the underlying causes are nuanced, as are the gender dynamics in Rima. While in the village the men seemed indolent and passive, their inaction masked a bubbling underlying frustration. Work prospects in Rima were almost nonexistent, so most men worked as migrant laborers, suffering through dismal conditions abroad.
Research shows that people with a history of being physically abused are more likely to perpetuate violence. Men who feel undermined in their own lives, whether by demeaning work conditions or relentless poverty, are more likely to commit acts of violence against women.
At age 17, Ramesh Nepali (of no direct relation to Rabina) is already a veteran migrant. He started at age 11, and continues to seek work in India during school holidays. He works 12-hour shifts, saving 3,000 to 4,000 Nepali rupees per month ($35-46). “Some work double, as night watchmen and also cooking food for restaurants or a family,” he explained. The hours are exhausting and the living conditions are cramped: normally he shares a room with five other Nepali migrants. “If I could get work here I wouldn’t go,” he said. “We want to stay home.”
Coming home means taking a vacation. It also means taking a huge leap in social status, from servant to favored son. For the boys, hours washing dishes are replaced with hours chatting and showing off cell phones purchased abroad. Worn out from their relentless work abroad and listless existence at home, there is little motivation for men to challenge the entrenched disempowerment of women, or challenge gender norms by helping around the house.
In an opinion piece about the Indian rape cases in The Hindu, one of India’s top English papers, journalist Praveen Swami asserted, “respect for women can emerge only from a culture that genuinely values rights for all.”
The statement rings as true in Rima as it does in Delhi.