Kalyani is on a mission to eradicate the Chhaupadi Pratha, a tradition where women are considered untouchables and are shunned from their homes to animal sheds during their menstruation. In mid 2016, Kalyani won a seed grant from Women Deliver to start our first project in line with our mission, 'Menstrual Hygiene Awareness Program'. The program was launched on 1st August, 2016 in Salkot Village Development Committee (VDC) of Surkhet district in the mid-western region of Nepal. According the unofficial data, around 500 out of 1600 households in Salkot practice Chhaupadi and the rest practice some form of restrictions during menstruation. Although, the practice has religious implication, we are certain that a big part of this issue is related to lack of awareness on menstruation and lack of hygienic menstrual practices. Our program aims to raise awareness by promoting menstrual health and hygiene in the community, among both men and women, regarding menstruation, fight taboos attached to menstruation and encourage women and girls to use proper hygienic sanitary products during that period.
To start off our project in Surkhet, we first made various courtesy visits to government and non-governmental agencies before heading off to our project site. One of them was with the District Health Officer (DHO), who exclaimed that our pilot project was a much needed initiative in the region. He expressed about the grave situation of Chhaupadi tradition in the VDCs of Surkhet with chilling stories of his female staffs suffering due to society's pressure for them to live in sheds during their menses.
After recruiting and orienting a full-time social mobilizer for our project from Surkhet Valley and local enumerators for our baseline data collection, we headed towards Salkot, a three hour off road travel from the valley. Our travel which included driving through rivers and almost negligible road made us realize that Salkot was well cut off from the valley. Our first stop at Salkot was the one and only local high school in the area. The teachers there were delighted to hear about our project. The Vice-Principal explained that school absenteeism during menstruation is a serious problem. Girls are told that if they don't live separate from their homes, bad omen and spirits of Gods will bother them. As a result of feeding dangerous stories to impressionable young girls, the teacher shared with us that there have been cases of mass hysteria in the school where up to 20 girls in day have come shivering and crying during their menses. Instead of sending them back home, the teachers counsel the students and sometimes try to console them by sprinkling gold-dipped water on their heads, after which the girls go back to their classes. After the stories from the school and our observation of our enumerators conducting some interviews, we were quite disappointed to find that the situation in Salkot was worse off than we had anticipated. We found that the community were rather secretive of their practices due alleged government policies where households practicing Chhaupadi were not provided with basic public facilities. This made the situation worse because it made problem identification that much harder. We also found that many agencies in the name of helping were building better sheds for women to live in during their menses indirectly promoting Chhaupadi in a way. A small number of households in the community followed Christianity instead of Hinduism and Chhaupadi or any other restrictions during menses were not practiced by them.
Although, culturally deep rooted practices like Chhaupadi are challenging to overcome, but awareness in such cases can go a long way. Kalyani's 'Menstrual Hygiene Awareness Program' is definitely a progressive step forward and in a few months we hope to see some positive changes in the community as a result of our program.