Fighting for their rights: meet the heroic teens battling period taboos in Nepal

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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A year ago today, we reported on the menstrual taboos faced by a group of teenage girls living in the small Nepalese village of Sindhuli.

Each month, these girls were restricted from doing the most basic of things, such as reading a book, seeing the sun, going to school or even living in their family home, all because they were on their periods.

The cultural norms of their society, which branded them “impure” or “contaminated” when menstruating, meant they were placed under these varying restrictions until their periods ended.

In an attempt to breakdown this stigma, international charity WaterAid gave cameras to seven teenagers in Sindhuli so they could document their experiences and share their feelings with their families and friends as part of their campaign to challenge menstrual taboos.

A year later, the charity returned to the village to see what impact the cameras had had on the girls and their community – with some surprising results.

None of the teenagers had ever used a camera before: we revisit three of their stories with new images, exclusive to, below.

“I was taken to another person’s house when I had my first menstruation” – Manisha Karki, 16

Manisha Karki lives with her parents, grandfather and younger brother Manish. She likes reading and helping her mother with chores around the house.

Manisha's family have previously been very restrictive with her when she is on her period. During her first menstruation she was removed from the family home and kept inside a separate room for 22 days, as her parents did not want her to look at the sun. The only way she could keep clean was by bathing in streams before sunrise.

Now, her mother will allow her to use the same cooking utensils as the rest of the family, although she is still not allowed in the kitchen. Manisha also went against an age-old tradition that meant girls who were menstruating were not allowed to touch the family vegetable garden – and she found that the plants continued to grow.

Manisha loves to help others. When she grows up, she wants to become a nurse.

“When will it change? I clicked this picture when my mother was cooking in the kitchen. I am still not allowed to go inside the kitchen during my menstruation. I am also not allowed to touch the cooked food as well.”

My grandfather doesn’t eat the food that I touch. That’s why my mother doesn’t allow me inside the kitchen. I feel very sad when I am not allowed inside the kitchen. But because of the belief and attitude that my family beholds, it will take years to change.”

Keeping them together is nice! This is the cupboard where we keep our utensils. During my first menstruation, I was given a different set of utensils such as a plate, a glass and a bowl. I used to tell my mother that it doesn’t matter if I touch the utensils – keeping them clean is more important.

I started telling her that repeatedly and because of that, she has started mixing my utensils with other cups and plates. It has become easier as my mother now understands me.

A happy selfie: after I attended the participatory photography workshop last year, I developed a better understanding regarding menstruation and I have experienced a lot of positive changes in me. When I used to have menstruation, I would be conscious about about telling it to my mother but now, I can confidently express my feeling regarding menstruation. I even teach younger sisters about it.

Now I don’t feel hesitant to share my food and fruits with my brothers. I was told not to go in the kitchen garden and that the plants would die if I touched them. But, despite all of the restrictions I touched them and the plants didn’t die. They grew well and the fruit didn’t rot. I go to my kitchen garden and pick up vegetables.

My confidence has grown with it. Likewise, I have realised that there is no such thing as being cursed if we eat something and go somewhere. This participatory photography workshop brought this positive change in me and I’m really happy about it.”

The change in me: I clicked this picture when my neighbour was washing clothes on a nearby well. A year back when I was unaware about issues regarding menstruation, I used to feel shy to take a bath or dry my pads out in the sun. Even if I dried it, I would cover it up with other clothes on top.

Now, I understand many things regarding menstruation and I don’t feel hesitant anymore to wash my pads and dry them in the sun. I have taught my younger sisters about this as well. I have told them that washing pads in the open and drying them in the sun has nothing to do with bad omens. It is just a superstitious belief. We have to eat healthily and use clean pads otherwise we might be infected. I teach all of these things to my little sisters.

Our responsibilities towards the golden future: my sister’s name is Samikshya Karki. I clicked this picture when she was goofing around. I was taken to another person’s house when I had my first menstruation. During that time I wasn’t allowed to comb my hair, look in the mirror, attend school, read and write.

Although I went through all of this, I will make sure that my younger sisters will get to eat and drink nutritional food during their menstruation. They won’t have to go to other’s houses and there will be no restrictions on reading and writing. My sisters will not have to go through any bad experiences during their menstruation. I’ll take a lead to create awareness about all these things in my society.”

“I wasn’t allowed to go to the places where my brothers were playing or where they were seated.” – Sabina Gautam, 15

Sabina Gautam lives with her parents and younger brothers. She likes spending time with her friends and travelling to new places.

Sabina's family used to follow the same restrictive cultural practices as others in the region, but now they will allow her to eat fruits, such as papaya, that they believe are offered to God, and she is allowed to play with her brothers. 

When she grows up, Sabina wants to be a police officer.

“We can eat fruits: This is my uncle’s daughter in the photo. She is my bigger sister and she is trying to pick out a papaya from the tree. During my menstruation, I wasn’t allowed to eat papaya because in our society there is a belief that papaya is a fruit that is offered to God.

But last year when I attended the participatory photography workshop I got to learn many things from it. I learnt that fruits like papaya and green vegetables are very nutritious to us. So I have started eating fruits, and I have touched the tree as well, and I have taught my younger sisters that all of these beliefs are nothing but superstition.

Playing with brothers is fun: I clicked this picture when my brothers were playing. I have a sister, mother, father and a brother in my family. My sister is already married. And now, my brother Uttam is more like my friend.

Before I wasn’t allowed to go to the places where my brothers were playing or where they were seated. But nowadays I can go and play with them without any hesitation. I don’t even feel that I am on my period. My brother has been my support system in helping me fight all these taboos. He helps me a lot.”

“Now we can talk about our periods without any hesitation” – Sushma Diyali, 17

Sushma Diyali lives with her mother and father as well as her younger sisters Sony and Bibesh. She likes reading story books and painting.

Her parents do not impose any restrictions on her when she is menstruating, although she had to move out of the family home during her first period. She documents the changes that have taken place in her school, such as having a pad distribution service.

When she grows up, Sushma wants to be a doctor.

“A moment of happiness in school during menstruation: this is a photo where my friends are coming towards school. During our menstruation we didn’t used to feel like attending school. Before, there was no arrangement of pad distribution, a changing room, a disposal space for pads or an incinerator but now all of this is managed within school itself.

And we are encouraged to attend school more than before. We can talk openly about menstruation without teachers as well. We feel happy witnessing such a big change within our school.

Pad distribution in school: in this picture our teacher is giving out a pad to my friend. A few years back, we used to feel very shy even to face our male teachers during our menstruation but nowadays, we can talk about it without any hesitation.

And now that we have a pad distribution service within school itself, we can ask teachers for pads and change.

Importance of hygiene for health: in this photo I am trying to capture the importance of hygiene, which is important whether in school or at home. There is an equal importance of water in cleanliness and hygiene as well. If we don’t focus on our personal hygiene than we might risk our lives to various germs and infectious diseases. We might even lose our life.

That is why it is very much important to focus on hygiene. Before, when there was no proper management of water in the latrines it was really difficult for us. But now both soap and water is available and we can easily wash our hands and flush the toilets. These facilities have truly made our lives easy.”

Images: WaterAid