Nepal: How girls can take control of their rights
We are girls
we have dreams
we have a voice
we can become the change
the world wants to see
A group of girls break into song as they wait for the facilitator to conduct their weekly Rupantaran (Transformation) session – part of a year-long CARE Nepal course to build their self-confidence and inspire them to advocate against harmful social norms and practices.
Bhumika (pictured above), age 15, comes from a typical family in Accham, Nepal – one where religion and social beliefs define their daily lives. She says:
My parents are very conservative, and they keep reminding me that a girl is like a flower, and once bruised there’s no purpose to serve. My earliest memories while growing up have been my mother’s constant lectures on what a girl should and shouldn’t do!
Growing up, Bhumika was told “not to engage with boys, as it would taint our ‘ijjat’ (honour), and we would be regarded as ‘bad girls’.” But the worst was yet to come for Bhumika, when she had her first periods when she was 13 years old. She says:
That’s when the nightmare started. My mother quickly took me to the nearby cowshed, where she used to sleep every month, and told me that from now onwards I had to stay in the cowshed whenever I had my period. I revolted and tried to reason with her. But she looked sternly at me, and said, ‘You are now a woman’.
Bhumika was forced to abide by Chaupadi pratha, a tradition practised for centuries that banishes women and girls during their periods from their houses to take refuge in cowsheds or other flimsy unhygienic structures, known as Chaupadi goths. Bhumika says:
From that day onwards, I regretted being born as a girl. A girl child goes through a lot of restrictions, and after her periods start her mobility is further curtailed. I felt trapped.
My friends used to narrate cases of sexual harassment, and rape, and I was fearful that something bad would happen to me in the cowshed that I was forced to live in during my monthly periods. I cried and begged with my parents, but they kept telling me that the gods would be angry if I didn't follow the tradition, and my family would face severe sanctions if I did not abide by it.
Bhumika was identified as one of the participants for the Rupantaran (Transformation) session in her school. For herself and the other 24 girls who took part, Bhumika says:
It was a way out for us girls, as we were discouraged to participate in any extracurricular activities. The Rupantaran sessions not only provided us a platform to learn, but also interact freely with our peers without the fear of being ostracised.
In Rupantaran, Bhumika and her friends were exposed to evidence-based knowledge (including on menstruation as a natural phenomenon), and were empowered to think critically and rationally, and to hone their interpersonal and communications skills. Bhumika says:
We realised that the age old tradition of Chaupadi not only harmed us mentally and physically, but also curtailed our rights. Rights provided by the law of the country! We were shocked to realise that for so long our parents were tormenting us with a tradition that couldn't be justified on any rational grounds. That’s when I decided that enough was enough.
Bhumika understood that her parents would never give in to her wishes, but then she came up with an idea. She explains:
There’s a belief that a girl cannot ferment curd during her periods. Our Rupantaran facilitator during the myth and taboo session stated that this was not true. Therefore, I decided to make curd during my periods, and prove my parents wrong.
Bhumika says her parents were left speechless, as she served a perfectly set bowl of curd to them. She says:
One thing that Rupantaran has taught me is to advocate for change, but advocacy cannot be done through adversity. That’s why I made a pact with my parents.
Bhumika negotiated a compromise: instead of living in the unhygienic Chaupadi goth, she would live inside in the house, in separate rooms, and eat nutritious and healthy food. But to respect her parent's beliefs, she stated that she would not engage in kitchen or religious activities. Her parents agreed. She says:
I was very happy. I don’t fear periods anymore. I also told my parents about the laws related to Chaupadi and told them that people have been booked for forcing women and girls to abide by the tradition.
But Bhumika's advocacy did not end there. Along with her friends, she decided to talk about menstruation hygiene with the Rupantaran boys group in their school. She says:
We developed a joint school action plan and decided to advocate for a menstruation friendly environment in our school.
A petition was drafted and submitted to the School Management Committee, and the school in collaboration with the students renovated the school toilets and built separate hygienic toilets for both girls and boys. Bhumika says:
The school has also started providing free sanitary pads to students, and the teachers have become more sensitive towards our needs.
Bhumika believes that the Rupantaran sessions have not only empowered her but have also taught her a valuable lesson on collaboration. She says:
If you are to change harmful social norms, then be fearless, and believe in collaboration. In our case, we couldn’t have succeeded if we were not together, and if we have not partnered with the boys.
The SAFE Justice project
The Rupantaran sessions were part of CARE’s SAFE Justice project in Nepal.
Access to justice is a major issue for the poorest and most marginalised groups in Nepal. Informal barriers include deeply entrenched norms and practices in Nepali society such as patriarchal family values, cultural norms, public gender discrimination, and caste-based social orders. Poverty, discriminatory implementation of legal provisions, under-representation of women and marginalised groups in the judicial service, physical distance to service providers specifically courts, and a lack of awareness of legal avenues are also major obstacles. CARE’s Strengthening Access to Fair and Equitable Justice (SAFE Justice) project has been working to build trust between poor and marginalised communities particularly women and girls and formal and informal justice service providers, in order to enable marginalised populations to access fair and equitable justice.
The SAFE Justice project was funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and implemented in five districts in Nepal (Gorkha, Dhading, Sindhupalchowk, Accham and Bajura) between October 2016 and September 2019, as part of the DFID-funded Integrated Programme for Strengthening Security and Justice in Nepal.