ACHHAM, Nepal — Next to an abandoned stable now used to store firewood, a reluctant young mother crouched to pass through a tiny door into a dark, musty room. Barely looking at her baby, she glanced around the mud walls at the place she was raped. It was not strange for her to be in this space, haunted as it was with violent memories, because she still sleeps here each month when she is menstruating.
Chaupadi is the ritual isolation of menstruating women. It is a tradition practiced in Achham, a district in the remote Far Western region of Nepal. Each month, women sleep outside their homes in sheds called "goths," in stables or in caves. They are deemed impure and treated as untouchable. They eat separately from their families, cannot enter their homes and often have to wash at a separate tap.
The practice has roots in Hinduism, though many scholars in Kathmandu, the capital, consider chaupadi a bastardization of the Vedic precept that women sleep apart from their husbands during menstruation. But in Achham the majority of women still practice this monthly separation.
Communities believe that to break the tradition would bring devastating bad luck: crops would fail, animals would die, snakes would fall from the ceiling. The imagined consequences are so dire that few dare to test stopping, even when the practice brings deadly consequences. Women have died from asphyxiation or burned to death when they built fires in the cramped sheds to shield from the Himalayan winter. Others have suffered rape and deadly snakebites and jackal attacks.
It takes two days to drive to Achham from Kathmandu, and most people don't bother. The impoverished district is better known for sending migrants south to India than for drawing more cosmopolitan Nepalis in. It is in this isolation that the chaupadi practice became entrenched.
The practice has gained some national attention and is widely denounced by women's rights activists. In 2005, the Supreme Court of Nepal deemed the practice illegal, but the distant court decision has had little impact on the daily lives of women in Achham.
More influential has been the slow spread of awareness that comes with increased connectivity. The construction of roads and the implementation of solar power in remote villages have led to the slow permeation of televisions and cellphones that offer a window into other worlds where chaupadi is not taken for granted.
Countless organizations have also campaigned against the practice through radio shows, awareness campaigns in schools and town meetings, and by declaring villages chaupadi free.
But social change is plodding because faith in the tradition runs deep. In only a few villages have women started sleeping inside when they are menstruating, but in many villages there is a growing discussion about the monthly ostracization. Some girls who hear messages in school want to quit the tradition but are restricted by more conservative parents. Some families stopped the practice, but when bad luck followed, it reignited their faith in the old ways.
And some, like the young mother who was raped, cannot imagine life without it. "Things are done according to tradition here," she said.
If she has a daughter, she said, "I won't do anything different — I'll send her to the goth."