dark room within the house, and 4 percent stayed in a nearby shed far from home during their first menstruation. Similarly, 30 percent stayed in a separate room where they were not allowed to be touched until the purification process a week later.
“This tradition is prevalent among the Hindus, especially Brahmin and Chhetri communities,” says Anita Pradhan, gender and communication officer in Nepal for WaterAid, an international charity that works to promote safe drinking water and sanitation. “But other ethnic groups living nearby are also influenced by this tradition.”
The only difference among groups is the number of days in isolation, ranging from 10 to 20, says Dinama Lamichhane, a consultant for WaterAid.
Somnath Bhattarai, a 70-year-old Nepali Hindu priest and scholar who has spent more than half a century studying and analyzing Hindu scriptures, says that some restrictions that people practice come from this scripture.
“Only when women clean themselves and rest separately for five days and five nights, they are eligible to offer puja [ritualistic worship] to the gods and to the dead ancestors,” he says, translating a paragraph from Sanskrit to Nepali from the Yajurveda, an estimated 4,000-year-old Hindu scripture .
This restriction is not limited to the first menstruation. Women can’t enter the worshipping room, usually a separate room holding idols of gods, until five days of menstruation have passed. Women who are menstruating can’t participate in funeral rituals for a week.
But other restrictions, such as staying in a separate room during menstruation, began later to avoid sanitation problems, Bhattarai says. This restriction is not in the original scriptures, he clarifies, citing misinterpretation of them by some priests.
“To live separately for more than five days in a dark room and excreting in the same room are the malpractices that were started later,” Bhattarai says.
Jamuna Siwakoti, a lecturer in the gender studies program at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University, says that practitioners of seclusion during menstruation attribute it to religious scriptures.
“The scriptures were written by men and, therefore, these rituals are practiced to make women subservient,” Siwakoti says. “To lock up a girl during her first menstruation is appalling, but people are so blinded by faith that every girl born in the Brahmin and Chhetri communities have to face it once in their lives.”
Another Hindu priest and Sanskrit scholar, Damodar Sharma, says he is not familiar with any convincing logic in the religious scriptures regarding seclusion during menstruation. But society has an unshakeable belief in the rituals carried out by their ancestors, and people follow everything that has been the custom, he says.
Devaki Thapa, 38, an educated housewife who lives in Kathmandu, says she plans to lock her 11-year-old daughter up when she starts her cycle for the first time. She says it is tradition.
“We have been practicing this for a long time,” she says. “And suddenly if we stop doing it, then the gods would be angry, and something bad can happen to our family.”
She also cites societal pressure.