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Women observing the ritual to wash away the sins committed during mentruation at the annual Rishi Panchami festival, Kathmandu. Nepal.
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The following photographs were taken September 2013 in Kathmandu and Surkhet District, in Nepal. Women observing the ritual to wash away the sins committed during menstruation at the annual Rishi Panchami festival. Kathmandu.Poulomi Basu—WaterAid/VII Mentor Program
Women observing the ritual to wash away the sins committed during mentruation at the annual Rishi Panchami festival, Kathmandu. Nepal.
Women observing the ritual to wash away the sins committed during mentruation at the annual Rishi Panchami festival, Kathmandu. Nepal.
Women observing the ritual to wash away the sins committed during mentruation at the annual Rishi Panchami festival, Kathmandu. Nepal.
Women observing the ritual to wash away the sins committed during mentruation at the annual Rishi Panchami festival, Kathmandu. Nepal.
Menstruation is considered dirty, and a menstruating girl or woman is a powerful, polluting thing. A thing to be feared and shunned. A woman at the annual Rishi Panchami festival, Kathmandu.
A group of women gather to surrender final prayers during RishiPanchami. Rishi Panchami is a festival that commemorates a woman who was reborn as a prostitute because she didn’t follow menstrual restrictions. It is a women’s holiday, and so Nepal’s government gives all women a day off work to perform rituals where they wash themselves to atone for any sins they may have committed while menstruating in the previous year.
Overview of Surkhet District, Nepal.
Nandakala New Pane, 42 years, Narsi Village“I don’t like being here. I do not want to have to do this. I think it is a punishment from God”
Chhaupadi shed, Narsi village, Nepal.
Thyra Khuri Bishwa Karma, 16 years, Narsi village“ I get scared of snakes. There is a village called Mumuri where a girl got bitten an when people come and see us at the chaupadi. I feel ashamed. I feel so ashamed.”
Belonging of a chaupadi girl in the open shed where she has to sleep during her menstruation period.  Narsi village, Nepal.
Chaupadi shed, Narsi village, Nepal.
Devi Ram Dhamala, traditional healer. 59 years old. Traditional healers often use extreme verbal and physical abuse to heal young girls who are ill during menstruation or even otherwise, believing they are possessed by evil spirit. Surkhet district, Nepal
Radha Bishwa Karma, 16 years old.My parents work in India. My grandmother doesn’t let me stay at home. She gets cross if I come home and I often don’t get my meals. I wish sometimes my mother was here to take me home or give me medicines, especially when I am in pain. It’s dark, and there is no light. I feel so scared someone might come.Surkhet district, Nepal
Jamuna Bishwa Karma, 25 years old “It is very difficult to stay away from my children. One of them is still breasfeeding. But my other son cries when I am away from him for days.”Surkhet district, Nepal
Mangu Bika, 14. “I was in Gujarat in India working during my first year of menstruation. I didn’t observe chaupadi there. Things are different here.”"The first time I went into a chaupadi I was scared of snakes. But now, more than snakes, I am scared of men; I am scared of getting kidnapped. I am really worried about what will happen to me after marriage. I want to grow up and be a teacher because I like going to school. Because when we go to school, we all sit together and their are no rules there or any discrimnation against the menstruating woman."Chandra Tiruva, 34, and her child, Madan, 2, share the chaupadi with Mangu. "It is the traditional belief that our 'kul devtaa' [house god] will be angered, so I was sent to chaupadi. I don't like being here but there is a lot of force. My mother in law forces me, but what can I do. She looks after my other three children during this period. But my mother in law even makes my two year old child observe chaupadi just because he sleeps with me."Surkhet district, Nepal
Mangu Bika, 14. “I was in Gujarat in India working during my first year of menstruation. I didn’t observe chaupadi there. Things are different here.”"The first time I went into a chaupadi I was scared of snakes. But now, more than snakes, I am scared of men; I am scared of getting kidnapped. I am really worried about what will happen to me after marriage. I want to grow up and be a teacher because I like going to school. Because when we go to school, we all sit together and their are no rules there or any discrimnation against the menstruating woman."Chandra Tiruva, 34, and her child, Madan, 2, share the chaupadi with Mangu. "It is the traditional belief that our 'kul devtaa' [house god] will be angered, so I was sent to chaupadi. I don't like being here but there is a lot of force. My mother in law forces me, but what can I do. She looks after my other three children during this period. But my mother in law even makes my two year old child observe chaupadi just because he sleeps with me."Surkhet district, Nepal
Menstruating women are not allowed to bathe. In certain villages, the luckier women are allowed to bathe but only after the the third day of their mentruation. After the third day, the might be allowed to bathe, however they must use a seperate source of water from the rest of the village.Chandra Tiruva, 34, and her child, Madan, 2, share the chaupadi with Mangu. Surkhet district, Nepal
Mangu Bika, 14. Menstruating women are not allowed to bathe. In certain villages, the luckier women are allowed to bathe but only after the the third day of their mentruation. After the third day, the might be allowed to bathe, however they must use a seperate source of water from the rest of the village.Surkhet district, Nepal
Mangu Bika, 14, after bathing, Surkhet district, Nepal.
Chaupadi shed, Narsi village, Nepal.
Living in the open chaupadi sheds the women are suspectible to animal attacks, such as poisonous snakes. Indeed, several women have lost their lives to snakes bites whilst observing chaupadi. Nasri village, Nepal.
The following photographs were taken September 2013 in Kathmandu and Surkhet District, in Nepal. Women observing the rit
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Poulomi Basu—WaterAid/VII Mentor Program
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The 'Untouchables': The Tradition of Chhaupadi in Nepal

Aug 12, 2014

'Tradition' is broadly defined as a belief or custom that is passed between generations. It can be cultural, religious or something entirely different. It can be praised and celebrated and adapted over time, or it can be viewed as dated and misunderstood and forced upon people who would otherwise not participate. It can breed sorrow and guilt, fear or even pain. In many cases, it can be or do all of those things.

In some parts of Nepal, it's Chhaupadi. Girls and women are made to live in makeshift huts while they’re menstruating out of the superstitious reasoning, and a tradition linked to Hinduism, that their blood is considered impure. The country’s top court ruled the practice illegal in 2005, but the decision hasn’t trickled over to the ex-Maoist district of Surkhet and Achham in the far west, only reachable by foot, where it began and remains widely observed.

Documentary photographer Poulomi Basu, currently based in New Delhi, witnessed the ritual firsthand. Last fall, after pairing up with the charity WaterAid, Basu, 31, made the two-day journey from Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, to photograph girls and women subjected to Chhaupadi. Alongside a female community mobilizer, who made introductions and explained the project to those interested, Basu got to work.

Each girl and woman she met endured unique circumstances. They were banned from socializing and sharing food, forced away from public space and barred from using the main water source. Basu said some of them have been sexually assaulted in, or abducted from, the huts and other have died from asphyxiation or fire when trying to ward off the cold.

Basu met one girl who lived in a hut filled with books, trying to study in an environment that left her completely exposed. Another was in such pain that she had to crawl to the toilet outside. When it was time to eat, “her sister came and threw the food at her from a great distance.”

In one instance, Basu witnessed a traditional healer beating a girl in front of two dozen men. There was little she could do. “[This tradition] has an extremely high impact on women’s physical and mental health,” Basu tells TIME. “Their self-esteem is completely crushed.”

The way most communities in that area see it, breaking with tradition would bring bad luck. Some believe menstruating women could attract snakes if they entered someone’s house, or infuriate the gods if allowed inside a temple. "A menstruating woman is seen as someone really powerful and someone to be feared and shunned," Basu explains. "They are untouchables."

Traditions like these aren’t just found in remote lands anymore. In Kathmandu, during the Rishi Panchami festival, women venture out often at night to bathe themselves in animal dung and urine to "wash away"—and atone for—sins committed during menstruation out of the fear she will otherwise be reborn as a prostitute. “It’s the same in the city and the villages,” Basu says. “It’s just done in two different ways.”

Basu, who recently joined VII Photo’s mentor program, says change is coming slowly thanks to technology and school programs. But Chhaupadi is so ingrained in life there that female hygiene campaigns and government engagement won’t cut it in the long-term, she says. It’s a nationwide commitment to education at the community level—lessons for girls about their rights and lessons for boys so menstruation is not seen as taboo—that will have the most effect.

"Change can only come to these places once you make women act on it, when women become the main facilitators of change, when they have the empowerment and position to be able to enact it."

Poulomi Basu is an a ward-winning documentary photographer based between India and the U.K.

Andrew Katz is a homepage editor at TIME and reporter covering international affairs. Follow him on Twitter @katz.

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