The horrible toll of menstrual taboos in Nepal and Bangladesh

At Mosaic — a new online publication funded by the Wellcome Trust that features long reads on science and medicine — Rose George has followed the story of Radha, a 16-year-old Nepali girl forced by custom into unsafe and unsanitary conditions every time she has her period.

We walk up a steep hill, through long snake grass, to a small lean-to structure. It looks like an animal shed, but it is smaller and meaner. This is the shed where the village’s menstruating women and girls sleep. In the winter, Radha sleeps on the tiny enclosed ground floor, no bigger than a crawl space. The summer accommodation is an earthen floor on a platform above, four-foot square. Except for a grass roof, it is open to the elements.

There is not space even for one person to lie down, but tonight there will be three. Radha’s relative Jamuna is also menstruating, and she’ll be sleeping here along with her one-year old son. Still, Radha appreciates the company, as another woman is some protection against drunken men who conveniently forget about untouchability when it comes to rape. Although the stigma keeps women silent, rapes of women sleeping in these sheds are common enough to appear as occasional items in newspapers in faraway Kathmandu, and common enough for women to look down when they are mentioned. Also common are snake attacks.

These conditions are forced on women not just by men, but by other women and the individual woman's own feelings that she must follow the rules. If she doesn't, bad things could happen. That fear stems not from physical threats, but from metaphysical ones. In parts of Nepal and Bangladesh, menstrual blood and menstruating women are thought to be powerful — but powerful in a dangerous, evil way that destroys anything associated with them, whether that be cows whose milk they drank or even nail polish applied during period week.

It's a fascinating look at the way religious and cultural beliefs can drive people to do horrible things to themselves, things that they will objectively tell you they hate, but believe must be done all the same.

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