When she was 14, Pawan Barsha Shah had her first experience of a custom that blots the lives of hundreds of thousands of girls and young women across the Himalayan nation of Nepal. "I began menstruating," says the 24-year-old journalist-activist based in Kathmandu. "For 10 days I was sent out of the house to live in a tiny, dismal shed without lights or doors. I was not allowed to come out, see male members of my family or touch anything. I had to sleep on rough sackcloth on the floor and my meals were kept outside the shed. I could hardly eat anything. The whole experience made me feel unclean."
Shah comes from Achham, in far-western Nepal, a region where the chhaupadi custom is at its harshest. Chhaupadi, in the local dialect, means a menstruating woman; in Nepal, a country where all important activities are still planned after consulting religious calendars, traditionalists believe menstruation to be the curse of the gods.
"Women are considered unclean during menstruation," says Tara Kanel, a child protection team leader with Save the Children that is spearheading a campaign in three remote districts to put an end to the chhaupadi tradition. "The practice continues all over Nepal where women are not allowed to enter the kitchen or touch water. But the most extreme form is practised in the far-western districts where they are not even allowed to stay inside the house and are forced to live in chhaupadi goths - a kennel-like primitive outhouse - till the cycle is over," she says.
Kanel details the terrible consequences of the practice, "Young girls, living alone, fall prey to rape and even murder. The chhaupadi custom perpetrates gender violence. These girls are also subject to attacks by wild animals, snakes, diseases and natural calamities. There have been cases of confined women dying due to diarrhoea and snake bites."
Mountain districts like Achham, Doti, Jumla, Bajura, Dailekh and Humla remain cut off because of the lack of roads, electricity, schools and health centres. So in these regions the custom flourishes, thanks to high levels of illiteracy, poverty and superstition. This despite Nepal's supreme court having banned chhaupadi nearly five years ago.
The apex court had ruled that the custom went against the principle of equality guaranteed by the Constitution and ordered the council of ministers to ban it. It also ordered the health ministry to form a committee of physicians to study the impact of the custom on women and children and suggest remedies. Two other ministries were directed to take action against chhaupadi as well. While the local development ministry was asked to organise regional bodies to create awareness about the evils of the custom, the women, children and social welfare ministry was told to draft directives to implement the ban and end such discrimination against women.
Three years ago, the government prepared a series of directives to eradicate the custom but it still has not been able to enforce them because of the political turmoil in Nepal after the 10-year communist insurgency. Women's activists were hoping that the new constitution, which was to have been promulgated by May this year, would see the chhaupadi custom receive its death blow. But the new statute could not be unveiled because of the on-going tussle for power and a new constitution will not be ready for at least another year.
"The first draft of the law is ready," says Tilak Ram Sharma, spokesperson at the Women, Children and Social Welfare Ministry. "It will now be discussed among the stakeholders. The political crisis will not affect the law since it is based on social justice."
Until the new law comes into force, Sharma says his ministry will work with local partners as well as NGOs to spread awareness about the ban. Save the Children, he says, is the biggest partner in far-western Nepal.
According to Kanel, Achham is the worst-affected district, "We started awareness programmes there in 2006. Last year, we also began anti-chhaupadi campaigns in Doti, and this year we plan to start them in Bajura. Many villages in Achham have already declared themselves chhaupadi-free and one of our best successes happened in Doti last month."
In April the Siddheswar Higher Secondary School, a government-run school in Doti, expelled nearly 30 girls from the girls' hostel. The school was closed down after the boundary wall collapsed. The authorities blamed it on divine wrath as the hostel had allowed menstruating girls to stay on.
"We lobbied with the local authorities to have the hostel re-opened. We also warned the school we would report them to the government if they did not end such discrimination against girl students. Finally, last month, the hostel was re-opened and the girls are back," says a triumphant Kanel.
Despite such occasional success, a sustained campaign is needed if such discrimination is to end. "The practice persists all over Nepal even today, though in milder forms," says Kanel. "When I first began menstruating, I was sent to the shed. Now that we live in Kathmandu, things have eased slightly. I don't have to stay in a shed. However, if my in-laws visit during that time, I am still not allowed to enter the kitchen."
While organisations like Save the Children are lobbying with the political and traditional society leaders in the villages to usher in change, there are also maverick activists like artist Ashmina Ranjit, who is using her art to boost the campaign.
The 43-year-old, who holds art degrees from Nepal's Tribhuvan University, Australia's University of Tasmania and the Columbia University, had a three-hour solo show in Kathmandu in March to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. As part of a "Week of the Women" hosted in Kathmandu by the Alliance Francaise, Ranjit devised a show with an art installation and performance to break the taboo on menstruation.
The centrepiece of the show was the costume Ranjit wore. She calculated how many sanitary napkins a woman needed during her lifetime, glued the napkins on to a white dress, embroidered them with red threads to denote veins and entered the venue with a tube of red paint. Since menstruating women are expected to remain isolated, Ranjit determinedly mingled with the audience, and chattily told them what she was doing and why, all the while squirting red paint from the tube on to the pads, then rolling the soiled ones up and putting them into the litter bin.
Later this year, Ranjit wants to stage a 15-hour public show. "I want to hold it around September," she says, "It's when women in Nepal observe Rishi Panchami and have to symbolically purify themselves. The rituals include brushing teeth with twigs more than a hundred times. This is believed to be an act of expiation for the 'sins' they committed by touching their husbands during menstruation."
According to this outraged artist, menstruation should be celebrated as part of womanhood. "It is a natural phenomenon without which there would be no life. However, the patriarchal society of South Asia has turned it into a negative thing in order to dominate women," she says.
Rebellion against the custom began early for Ranjit. When her mother would urge her not to touch trees during her monthly periods because they would shrivel up and die, she would promptly rush out to touch them. Then she would tell her mother triumphantly, "There, did it die? Instead, it's doing even better now.”