Page last updated at 23:59 GMT, Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Nepal's 'confined women' want change

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Dadeldhura, western Nepal

Basanti Devi Bhul and her newborn son
Besanti Devi's confinement shed is airless and dark

In the darkness, a 10-day-old baby boy wails.

It is midday, but the infant has not been allowed out of this special room, separate from the rest of the house, since being brought home after birth.

Only his young mother, Basanti Devi Bhul, can touch him.

She goes out a little but cannot touch anybody else because until the 11th day after the birth, society considers her to be unclean.

"I'm not doing any work," she tells the BBC.

"I just eat dry bread, green vegetables and rice - no lentils or meat. I can't touch any pots or pans or go into the main house. I just go out to wash myself and my clothes, that's all."

This practice of confinement, known as chhaupadi, extends also to women during their monthly period.

Some sort of confinement during menstruation is common in this and other societies. But here in western Nepal it takes extreme forms, with a woman sometimes restricted to a dirty cow-shed or other special huts.

Extreme confinement was outlawed by Nepal's Supreme Court three years ago, but continues to be widespread.

Custom defended

The room where Basanti Devi rocks her baby is musty, airless and dark.

Out in the yard her relatives and neighbours can be heard laughing. To get into her room, we have come in through an outer shed, where logs and wooden ploughs lie piled, into a very dark inner shed where there is just a single stream of light coming in from the door.

"I wish I were more free to roam around," she says. "I wish someone else could come and look after my child when he cries. I wish the system could be abolished."

The village of Dil, where she lives, is a steep two-hour climb from the road which snakes through these hills.

It is a place with breathtaking views and closely packed houses of clay or stone. On the walls hang banners in support of the Maoists, the former rebels now leading the government.

Every house here practices the chhaupadi system. It is a tradition that Basanti Devi's mother-in-law, Durga Devi Sarki, defends.

Basanti Devi's husband Ganesh and his parents
Besanti Devi's parents-in-law defend chhaupadi but her husband wants change

"Our god will be angry if we don't do this," she says. "She is a nursing mother so how can she cook? Everyone around here does this, so we do, too.

"If she eats normal food she'll get sick."

In another village we met a similarly confined young mother, Padma Devi Deuba.

"I believe that if I take my child outside he will be sick and God will be angry," she says. "It is quite difficult, but it is our system."

It is the same when she has her period. "I can't go inside or cook anything for five days," she says.

"If I touch anyone, it will be a sin." But there is an uneasiness in her. She believes in it; yet she, too, says she would like it eradicated.

'Grim consequences'

The related beliefs vary. Some people in western Nepal think a new mother or a menstruating woman will bring bad luck on a whole household if she stays in the main house; or that she can make cow's milk into blood.

Their accommodation is often insanitary, shared with cattle and their excrement and sometimes some distance from a village.

It tends to be unventilated and cramped. And the consequences of chhaupadi can be grim.

House in Dil with confinement shed in bottom left of picture
Besanti Devi was kept in a shed underneath this house

Last summer a 15-year-old girl died of diarrhoea she contracted while sleeping alone in a shed. No one wanted to take her to a health post.

In the biggest hospital in Far Western Region, senior doctor Ganesh Bahadur Singh says chhaupadi has a definite detrimental effect.

Speaking of mothers with newborn infants, he says, "at this period the mother and child should have good nutrition and everything.

"They want care, love, everything. [But] the surroundings, their personal hygiene, they all invite the infection. They will cause feverů The mothers in this situation - they are more anaemic, they don't have the blood."

Reform push

Change is happening. Many parents say they would take the younger women to the clinic in an emergency.

Women are declaring they do not like the practice, and in Dil village, so too is Basanti Devi's husband, Ganesh.

His activism in the Maoist party has opened his eyes to the need for change. He wants to see the chhaupadi system abolished.

"I broke the rules," he says. "I carried our child back from the health post where he was born and then entered the main house despite my parents' protests. I do touch my child.

"I wanted to give normal food to my wife but I couldn't go that far against my parents' wishes. We can't change everything at once. It has to be gradual."

Devaki Shahi
Devaki Shahi has been campaigning to reform chhaupadi

Devaki Shahi agrees. She works for a local charity, the Rural Women's Development and Unity Centre, and travels around advocating change. She speaks from experience, having been confined after her own son's birth.

Thanks to campaigns by her and others, the actual sites of confinement are at least improving in this district.

If sheds are used, they're likely to be cleaner, less likely to be shared with animals. The women get better food too. But fear keeps this tradition alive.

"If someone breaks the practice and her child falls ill, people say it's because they didn't observe chhaupadi," says Devaki Shahi.

"In one village local people destroyed some of the confinement sheds. Someone hurt his leg in the process and everyone said it was because he was doing a bad thing."

So Basanti Devi still needs to go to a special tap, outside the village, to wash, away from all her neighbours.

On the 11th day her confinement will end. A priest will perform a blessing, and take her child and point his head towards the sun for the first time.

Then he will throw flour and rice on her - and make her "pure".

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