I have spent the vast majority of my professional life navigating spaces dominated by men. I have patted myself on the back for refusing to conform, pursuing jobs that are less “girly”, and those that require less emotion and more logic. I have felt strong, stoic, and independent.
For many years, this stoicism felt empowering. It became safe and predictable. Sure, I would dip my toe into the uncertain waters of emotion, but I had learned to circle that pool carefully, ready to retreat to the safety of solid ground when feelings felt too big.
Injustice and oppression are issues that elicit big, and often scary feelings for me. So, when I first learned of the harm inflicted on women forced to practice Chaupadi in Nepal, the feelings felt heavy, invasive, and dangerous to safely navigate.
Chaupadi is a Nepalese tradition connected to menstruation and child-birth, declaring women “impure”. During these life events, women are thought to offend the Hindu gods, bringing curses to their family if they remain indoors. Forced to live in cow-sheds or makeshift huts, women are denied access to community water sources and bathrooms. They may not be touched and may not enter their homes to cook food. Living under the confines of Chaupadi, women are at extreme risk of rape, animal mutilation, suffocation, and death.
And, this is the space I was being invited into by my friend, Ramila. A space that promised deep emotional waters.
Ramila Karmacharya, co-founder of Transformation Nepal, is a leader within the Nepalese church, and is passionate about ending Chaupadi. I have known Ramila and Bishwa (her husband) for six years, and was invited to join them in remote regions of northwest Nepal to sit with women living under the degrading confines of Chaupadi.
Exhausted after four days of travel, we hiked the final stretch leading to the village. I had felt myself retreating to that familiar safe solid ground, and knew that I was emotionally torn – wanting to stand safely on the side, while also longing to enter into this scary space of injustice.
Taking my cues from Ramila, we removed our sandals and dove in, inviting women to share their stories of Chaupadi.
Sapana Sarki’s story:
I am 19 years old and had my first period when I was 14. I had no idea about menstruation and was afraid when I told my mother that I was bleeding. She immediately took me outside where we used to keep our cattle, gave me a cloth, and told me I had to stay in this small, dark shed for a week. She didn’t talk to me that entire week. I was so afraid and cried for the entire time. I thought my parents didn’t want me anymore.
While I was in the shed, I didn’t want my friends to see me, and felt ashamed that I smelled bad. Boys, and even my friends, teased me saying, “Now, if you pee on the roadside, you will get pregnant and have a baby”. I wasn’t allowed to use a toilet, and I didn’t want to have a baby. What if I used the bush for a bathroom?
That whole week no one from my family talked to me. I thought everyone was disgusted with me. I used to tell myself, “Let this not happen even to my enemy.” How people treated me and what they said to me hurt me so much. But what could I do?
Today, I understand that menstruation is not bad. But, I still have to follow our traditions of not staying inside the house when I bleed.
My time with the women in northwest Nepal changed me, and I am so thankful for their willingness to invite me into their world.
Do deep emotional waters still give me pause? Yeah.
Do I still find comfort in, and naturally navigate to, my solid ground? Oh Yeah.
Am I dipping my toe into the waters of emotion more frequently? I think so.
Knocking on the door of 50 yrs, Kristen Roeters is enjoying a short pause from careers that have required significant travel to rediscover and move into spaces that provide rest and food for her soul. These spaces include doing life with her adult son, enjoying long conversations with friends, learning to like coffee – with lots of creamer, adopting a rescue dog, and having a schedule that allows her to become involved in her church. Kristen lives in Grand Rapids, MI, and earned a MA in Development Administration from Western Michigan University. Looking ahead to “what’s next”, she’s pretty sure those dreams will involve sustainable global justice, advocacy, community development, and care for marginalized individuals.
Opportunities to fight Chaupadi:
Ramila and Bishwa are collaborating with leaders in the village of Bhajhang to end Chaupadi. Because this is so intimately ingrained within the culture, addressing underlying causes requires time. Immediate and long-term solutions will cost $25,000. This project includes:
- Immediate safety:
- A four-room structure for women during menstruation with access to water, cooking facilities, bathroom and a locked door (while unskilled labor provided by residents of Bhajhang, all materials must be brought in by jeep or by hand)
- Land for the shelter (donated by the village)
- Literacy classes
- Financial security – goat herding
If you would like contribute to Ramila and Bishwa’s work in in Bhajhang Online Contributions can be made here. Please note: “Transformation Nepal: Choupadi” with your contribution.