9-15 December 2016 #836

The gods will be angry

In the remote mountains of western Nepal, women still deliver babies in dirty, cold and stuffy cowsheds
Mina Sharma and Prakash Singh in Bajura, Humla and Mugu

Seminars in Kathmandu debate gender, reproductive rights and the maternal mortality, and as we mark the 16-day campaign against gender-based violence the clamour for gender equality gets louder. But in the remote mountains of western Nepal, women still deliver babies in dirty, cold and stuffy cowsheds. They live there for one month, without nutritious food and no attendants. Donor-funded projects for safe motherhood have yielded few actual results in these far-flung villages. Women here fear that the gods will punish their families by causing drought, famine and disasters if they enter the house after childbirth. They are not allowed to eat nutritious food before and after delivery, and no one can touch them. The superstitions persist despite development projects and education. As a result, mothers and newborns suffer from malnutrition, other diseases and even death.

Sarswati Budhthapa, 21, Bajura

  28 October. I delivered my baby two weeks ago, and ever since I have been living in this shed. If I enter my house or kitchen, the gods will be angry. Health workers tell us that we should not live in the shed with our newborns, but this has been our tradition. My mother gave birth to me in a shed. And she was also born in a shed. So was her mother. Nothing happened to them because they were careful not to anger the gods. If the god gets angry, we will face drought, famine, landslides and other disasters. Our children also become disabled. Knowing those consequences, how can we enter the house? 

Bhawana Budha, 22, Humla

  29 October. I have three children, and I gave birth to each of them in the cowshed. The nearest health post is far away so it is difficult for me to go there. During the time we spend in the shed, we do not eat green vegetables, beans and lentil soup. No one is allowed to cook for us. We have to do everything ourselves. But we endure this suffering hoping that the gods will show mercy on our families.

Chinkala Chadara, 22, Mugu

  30 October. I delivered my baby in this cowshed six days ago.  I had visited the local health post during pregnancy, and the health workers had advised me to visit them for the delivery. But if spending one month in this shed with my baby saves my family from the god’s anger, I should do it. Most women around here deliver their babies in the cowshed and live there for at least one month since no one can touch them for that time. They cook, wash and look after their babies themselves. They can work outdoors, but cannot enter the kitchen.  

Dudhari Dhami, 24, Humla 

29 October. When my labour pains started, women from the neighbourhood took me to the cowshed. The umbilical cord was cut with a sickle, just like the others. I delivered my first baby in a cowshed, too, my mother gave birth to me in a cowshed, and nothing happened to me. That is the way we have always done things here. If we deliver in the home, the gods will be angry. We lose weight, and in summer there are insects, but we have to bear with it.

Nandasara Sarki, 23, Bajura

27 October. I have been living in the cowshed since I gave birth 12 days ago. After delivering the baby, the mother and child were not allowed to stay in the house because the gods would be angry and we will face poor harvests and the baby will not be healthy. All the women from this village and my maternal village in Humla live in a shed after delivery and during menstruation.

This is my fifth child and I have lived in a shed for a month after every delivery. It gets too cold in there, and two of my babies died because of exposure. This baby is also suffering from cough and diarrhea.  Not all children who are born survive. Everyone has lost a child, so have I. 

The doctors at the health post tell us not to live in a cowshed after giving birth. The people from the NGOs also tell us the same thing. But this is how things have been done here for ages. Why would we have any problems when no one in the past faced any? I was also born in a cowshed and I am still healthy. Why discontinue the rituals that have been going on? We should not be selfish and make the gods angry? 

Magi Chadara, 17, Mugu

30 October. My daughter was born 13 days ago. Today I went to work in the field after putting her to sleep. After lunch, I will feed her and go to collect fodder for the cattle. The health post is five minutes away from my house. When I go there, the health workers tell me to come for regular check-ups and not stay in the cowshed after delivery. But how can we stay in the house when the elders tell us not to do so? All the women in my village have stayed in the shed during and after delivery, and nothing has happened to them. So why should I not stay here? Women like us should not touch men. Even when we are educated, we have to follow the rituals when we know that the gods will be angry. These are traditions handed down by our ancestors.

Dhan Bahadur Phadera Acting Head, Rugin Health Post, Bajura

I have been here for two years. The mothers are brought to the health post only after their condition deteriorates in the cold cowsheds, and they are in no conditions to moved to hospital. We are trying to brief them, but they don’t want to give up their tradition of not giving pregnant women butter, meat, milk and yoghurt. I am from the west, I have been all over the Karnali, and I can say that 80 percent of women still deliver in cowsheds. Even husbands who have college degrees make their wives have babies in cowsheds.

Ramudevi Malla, Female Health Volunteer, Bajura

I have been telling women here not to deliver in cowsheds for ten years now. But I have failed. I delivered inside the home, but I couldn’t convince others. They won’t even be taken to a clean room because of the belief that livestock will be sick if a woman having periods stays inside the home. Superstition is difficult to eradicate. “Nothing happened to my mother-in-law when she stayed in the cowshed, why should it be different for me,” the daughters-in-law ask. We have been successful in getting them to have regular checkups, to take vitamins and iron pills, deworming medicines, but we have failed to get them out of the cowsheds while giving birth or when they have their periods. Last year a young mother here died in a cowshed because of loss of blood, yet they insist in staying in the dirty hut amidst the cowling and straw, their reply is: “It is enough if the gods are happy.”

Centre for Investigative Journalism

Read also:

That time of the month, Rubeenad Shrestha

Women are dying in the far-west, Dr Aruna Uprety

“Then they set her ablaze …”, Narayan Dhungana