Nepali Times
Guest Column
Custom-made injustice


Of all the cultural practices that suppress Nepali women, none is as degrading as the practice of chopadi. It expels women from the home for the duration of their monthly periods, and for 11 days after childbirth.

Chopadi is still practiced across western Nepal, and because it is so intimately tied with a woman's body, it is symbolic of female subjugation in patriarchal Nepal. But last week, after activists filed a public interest litigation the Supreme Court finally declared the practice illegal and directed the government to promulgate necessary laws to ban the custom. It may take a few more years to actually pass the law, but at least this is a start.

In my travels through western Nepal, I have seen this horrifying injustice that hundreds of thousands of Nepali women are forced to endure in their homes.

In Achham, Kanchha Chhetri's wife delivered a baby with the help of relatives and she was whisked away to the chopadi shed because childbirth had made her "impure". Her child died after three days, and she herself was bleeding and running a high fever. But no one helped her.

"I only came to know how sick she was on the fifth day," recalls Kanchha, "I defied family pressure to rush her to Nepalganj. By the time we got there over the rough roads, her condition had worsened. She could not be saved." Kanchha is convinced that had it not been for chopadi, his wife would be alive today.

On the road from Mangalsen to Sanfebagar in Achham, homesteads all have small windowless outhouses. Locals show us inside the dark, cramped and smelly interior of chopadis. It is hard to imagine anyone spending 11 days here especially after giving birth in the bitter cold of winter. Many babies and mothers that survive childbirth later die of pneumonia or tetanus.

Besides childbirth, women have to spend four days a month here during their periods and teenage girls live through the terrifying ordeal of being locked up for four days when they have their first menstruation. The time when girls most need comfort of being with their mothers, a safe and clean place, nutritious food she is left alone in the darkness and dirt.

There are those who defend this practice saying traditional culture needs to be safeguarded. But such misogyny is not tradition, it is a crime. Some women in the midwest are steeped in such ignorance and are so resigned to their fate that even they don't question the practice and bear it in silence.

"When we were young we didn't even have chopadi huts, we had to stay under the tree," one woman in Achham once told me, "rain or shine, day or night we lived under the tree for eleven days."

Other women remembered shooing wild animals attracted by the scent of blood at night, the days of mental and physical torture that they quietly endured. Many women prayed for early menopause so they wouldn't have to go through the ordeal. Some women in the midwest used to ask us for the Depo Provera contraceptive because of its side effect of temporarily halting menstruation. Even women whose husbands were away in India for long periods wanted Depo Provera simply because they didn't want to confined to a hut four days a month.

Old customs die hard, and chopadi is still practiced even in educated households of health practitioners. One whispered to me shyly: "We know it is not good, but if we don't follow chopadi we will be ostracised by our neighbours."

From the reproductive health standpoint, chopadi is an extreme example of a cultural practice having a direct impact on maternal mortality and morbidity. Yet it has been tolerated for so long because it has been brushed under the carpet by a male-dominated ruling class which preferred to look the other way.

Now that the Supreme Court has given its verdict, will the government try to make up for lost time? Will it enact the law quickly before more women are forced to live through this humiliation? Or are more women going to lose their lives after their bring forth new life in solitary confinement of their chopadi huts?

Dr Aruna Upreti is a women's health and reproductive rights activist.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)