Superstition drives women out of homes—again— into Chhau sheds in Achham districtDhakari was declared a Chhaupadi- and untouchability-free village on May 17 with much fanfare. But a recent fire has led the villagers to believe that their embracing of the campaign has angered the gods.
Superstitious beliefs are driving menstruating women and girls in Achham out of their homes and into Chhaupadi sheds in Achham paying no heed to the government’s move of making the practice illegal in 2005 and criminalising it in 2017.
What propelled the villagers’ superstitious belief of menstruating women and girls being impure was an incident that took place last Friday. A heap of dry wheat husks caught fire and destroyed six houses including that of three local Dhamis (shamans) in Dhakari, Achham.
Sixty goats and two cattle belonging to six households perished in the fire. According to the District Police Office, properties worth around Rs18.2 million were destroyed in the inferno.
This incident came on the heels of the Dhakari Rural Municipality being declared Chhaupadi-free and heralding a new era of end to caste-based discrimination in the municipality. The declaration came on May 17. The government authorities and people’s representatives with the help of the District Police Office in Achham had launched a drive against Chhaupadi and caste discrimination in the district, and had declared it a resounding success.
Soon after declaring Dhakari a Chhaupadi- and untouchability-free village, the elated women, Dalits and non-Dalits had organised a feast and dined together—a first-of-its-kind celebration in the village. The Chhau sheds in the village were dismantled and the general atmosphere of the village was that of elation and jubilation for finally doing away with social evils.
However, the celebration was short-lived and the campaign suffered a great setback after Friday’s incident in Balata with the villagers propagating the belief that in accepting the campaign they have angered the gods. Most villagers believe that they now have to face the wrath of the gods for defying the age-old practice of Chhaupadi and caste segregation.
Slowly but surely, after the fire incident, menstruating girls and women are returning to observing Chhaupadi.
The women are now pitching tents to use as Chhaupadi sheds in the fields and out of the vicinity of their homes. “We are frightened. What happened last Friday is a sign that the gods are not happy with what we have done. We do not want to stay inside the house during our period now,” said Nari Dholi, a ward member. “Forget entering the house during menstruation. We don’t even want to go anywhere near the house. We shouldn’t be disrespecting the gods anymore.”
After the fire incident, all 72 households in Dhakari have now built temporary Chhau shelters.
According to Bhakta Bahadur Saud, one of three Dhamis whose house was destroyed in the fire, was a “powerful” Dhami. His house was also where the gods were kept which the villagers believe was the abode of the gods. “How is it possible that the fire engulfed the abode of the gods?” Saud said in disbelief. “We lost everything that belonged to the deities; it is as though the gods are sending us a warning.”
Insisting that menstruating women and girls should not be allowed inside, Saud said, “After what happened, it is not possible to keep menstruating girls and women at home.”
Even those women who actively worked towards abolishing Chhaupadi practice are now unsure. One of the advocates, Parbati Devi Saud, expressed her fears, “We are afraid. We fear divine wrath if we stay indoors during our period and we fear the law if we stay in Chhau sheds.”
A provision under Clause 168 (3) of the Civil and Criminal Code prescribes a three-month jail term and a fine of Rs3,000 against anyone found guilty of forcing a menstruating woman to live in a Chhaupadi shed.
Undeterred by the provision, Saud said, “At this point, I do not care if the government punishes me or bars me from using government facilities. I cannot stay inside the house during menstruation.”
On the cusp of losing the long fought battle against Chhaupadi, which is widely practiced in the hill districts of Sudurpaschim province, and which continues to kill multiple women each year, the people’s representatives and campaigners see no immediate solution.
Laxmi Saud, the deputy chief of the Dhakari, said, “All the villagers believe that the fire broke out and caused grave damage because the women stayed inside the house during their period. Fighting against Chhaupadi here is turning into a losing battle.”
She said not a single woman in the village is willing to believe that the fire was an accident, and had nothing to do with the village being declared Chhaupadi-free.