Putting people first

November 11, 2017

Kamal Dev Bhattarai, The Kathmandu Post, 11 Nov 2017

Thirty-year-old Tika Kunwar admittedly lives a double life. As a teacher at a local primary school in Shelakhet village of Bajhang district, she teaches her students to raise their voices against the Chhaupadi system, even though she herself is forced to comply with the practice at home.  

“I teach my students that they should shun such practices, but I have not quite been able to break the taboo at home,” she admits, “The problem runs deeper than just being banished to a ‘menstrual hut’ during your periods. We are not allowed to go nearby wells, community taps or any other water bodies. The women who refuse to comply are ostracised publicly—that is what happened to me.”

According to Kunwar, in Shelakhet, there are two small communal Chhaupadi sheds. “Sometimes there are up to six women on their periods at the same time and we are all crammed into the two huts. It is not just discriminatory, it is inhumane,” she says. 

In a landmark move, a new law was enacted four months ago, criminalising Chhaupadi—a practice that banishes women from home during menstruation and after childbirth. The law, enacted more than a decade after the Supreme Court banned the practice, stipulated a three-month jail term or Rs 3,000 fine for anyone who forces women to follow the centuries-old custom that defines menstruating women as impure and harbingers of disease and bad luck. 



Despite all this, the custom is still widely practiced in Bajhang and other far-western districts, largely due to poor implementation of the law. And as the region braces for the upcoming elections for the Federal and Provincial parliaments, voters like Kunwar are disappointed that social issues like Chhaupadi have failed to feature in the agendas of the campaigning political parties. 

“It goes on to show just how disconnected the political actors are from the realities on the ground,” Kunwar says, “How are we to believe their lofty promises of development, when they seem so oblivious to these basic concerns of us voters.”

Jagadish Rokaya, chairman of the Bajhang chapter of the Federation of Nepali Journalists, agrees that social issues have never become electoral agendas for political parties and their leaders. “When they speak with the media or non-government organisations, they make commitments about ending such discriminatory traditions. But at the grassroots level, they hardly ever raise these issues,” he said.

According to Rokaya, apart from the Chhaupadi custom, the region is plagued by several other forms of social discriminations and malpractices, which too have failed to feature on electoral agendas. “Issues like child marriage, the dowry system, bonded agricultural labour, and discrimination against Dalits is still prevalent in the region,” Rokaya says, “And we are talking about a village like Shelakhet which is less than two kilometres away from Bajhang’s district headquarters. The problem is exponentially more acute in far-flung remote villages.”

To highlight the discriminatory customs still practiced in Shelakhet, Rokaya points to the revered Hindu temple of Surma Devi, a prominent landmark of the village. According to Rokaya, women on their period are barred from even walking the road that passes by the temple “so as not to ‘contaminate’ the devotees.” Until a few years ago, Dalits were banned from using the road altogether. 

“The only way to eradicate social ills is through a well-strategised execution at the government-level,” Rokaya says, “But going by the electoral canvassing by the leaders who are soon to assume important offices, change will not come easily.” 

This comes despite the fact that the government and non-government actors have been pouring millions of rupees into the region to eradicate social malpractices. Wide-range of interaction programmes conducted with women, Dalit, and marginalised groups have shown that an end to various forms of discrimination remain one of their primary aspirations. 

Nanda Devi Bhul, a 60-year-old Dalit woman from Dasharath Chand Municipality-4 of Baitadi district, for instance, is aware of the upcoming elections but is frustrated that the political sloganeering continues to revolve around the oft-repeated mantra of infrastructural development. “We have heard a lot of promises in the past but critical issues like health facilities and education remain unaddressed,” she says, “What we need is a roof over our heads, education for our children, and the elimination of discriminatory practices. But politicians don’t seem to understand voters’ needs.”

Ganga Bhul, 50, Nanda Devi’s neighbour, also lists the end to discrimination as her foremost priority while picking who she will be casting a vote for—just that at the moment no candidate has convinced her they deserve her vote.

“There is deep sense of disillusionment among the voters in the Far-western and Mid-western hills,” says Rokaya, “While infrastructural development has brought some much-welcome changes in the region, it must be a catalyst for social change as well. Social development is the need of the hour here.”