An 18-year-old girl in Nepal died on Friday, July 7, after being bitten by a poisonous snake while staying at a relative's hut during her menstruation period. The incident raises concern about the dangers of a traditional Hindu practice that forces menstruating women to separate themselves from their families as they are considered "impure" by society.
Tulasi Shahi, a native of Nepal's Dailekh district, was forced to stay at her uncle's hut after she began having her menstruation period for the month. This was part of a tradition in their country known as chhaupadi, where girls like her are sequestered from their families while they have their period.
The hut that Shahi had to stay in for the time was used primarily to keep cows. She had to lay wooden boards on the ground so she could have somewhere to sleep. While she was asleep Thursday evening, the girl was bitten by a snake that had made its way inside the hut.
Shahi's mother brought her to a local shaman who was not able to cure the girl. She was then transferred to a medical clinic, but the staff there could not save her since they lacked the antivenom treatment that she needed. Shahi died the following morning after fighting for her life for seven hours.
Kamala Shahi, a cousin of the victim who works for a government health unit, said Shahi could have been saved if she was only given the right treatment. She added that her relative died because of "superstition."
Menstruation Hut Ritual
Nepalese women practice chhaupadi as part of their Hindu tradition. They are prohibited from participating in regular family activities during their period as they are deemed impure. They are forced to stay out of their homes and live in makeshift huts or even in cattle sheds.
Menstruating women are forbidden to have any contact with men during chhaupadi. They are also prohibited from eating certain types of food such as meat, milk, butter, and other nutritious foods since it is believed that they could spoil these goods. They are only allowed to eat salt, rice, and dry foods throughout the ritual.
In 2005, the Nepalese Supreme Court moved to end chhaupadi in the country. However, many women still choose to continue the ritual.
A 2010 survey found that as much as 19 percent of Nepalese women between the ages of 15 and 49 practice chhaupadi. This number increases to 50 percent for those living in Nepal's midwestern and far western regions.
The government has been pushing to pass a bill in Parliament that would make it illegal to practice chhaupadi, but its efforts are still not enough, according to women's rights groups.
"What the government has put out is just a guideline. No one can report to police, no one can file a case ... you cannot punish anyone for sending their girls and wives to these huts," Radha Paudel, a Nepalese writer and activist, said.
Activists pointed out that while Nepal already has laws to end women's rights issues such as domestic violence and child marriage, it still lacks laws that would protect menstrual rights.
Shahi's death is the second chhaupadi-related case to be recorded in the Dailekh district in the past few weeks. Officials said another teenage girl in the area died six weeks ago after being bitten by a snake as well.