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Battling custom of exiling menstruating women in Kullu

Women in 94 of Kullu district’s 204 panchayats are forced to sleep in wood and stone sheds stained with animal dung and urine during such times because of a belief that menstrual bleeding renders them “impure”.

india Updated: Mar 31, 2018 12:21 IST
Naresh K Thakur
Naresh K Thakur
Hindustan Times, Kullu
Girls in a village of Kullu district in Himachal Pradesh dance at an event organised under the ‘Nari Garima’ campaign launched by district administration to end the practice of banishing women to cattle sheds during their menstruation cycle.
Girls in a village of Kullu district in Himachal Pradesh dance at an event organised under the ‘Nari Garima’ campaign launched by district administration to end the practice of banishing women to cattle sheds during their menstruation cycle.(Aqil Khan/HT Photo)

Life is no cakewalk for those who live in Himalayan villages, but it gets doubly hard for women on five days every month, when they are confined to cow and goat sheds for the duration of their menstrual period.

Women in 94 of the district’s 204 panchayats are forced to sleep in wood and stone sheds stained with animal dung and urine during such times because of a belief that menstrual bleeding renders them “impure”. They are not allowed to enter their homes, temples and even toilets as people think that doing so would bring misfortune upon their families.

The times, however, are changing. On New Year’s Day, Kullu deputy commissioner Yunus Khan launched the year-long ‘Nari Garima’ (dignity of woman) campaign to end the practice.

“This age-old notion goes against the fundamental right conferred by Article 21 of the Constitution of India on its citizens — the right to life with dignity,” said 35-year-old Khan. “It is not only regressive but also fatal at times. A woman confined in a cattle shed is exposed to dangerous insects, bacteria and viruses.”

The threat of sexual and physical assaults also increases when women are forced to venture into the fields at odd hours to answer nature’s call.

Kullu district was declared “open defecation free” in October 2016, which means that every household has a toilet. So Khan, a 2010-cadre IAS officer, was surprised when people from several villages in the region requested the government to build toilets and bathrooms exclusively for women. “It was only when I asked panchayat representatives about this that I heard about the practice,” he said.

An extensive survey was performed in such panchayats by Anganwadi and Accredited Social Health Activists under the Integrated Child Development Service programme in November 2017. “The report showed that indicators of women’s health, hygiene and social status were low in places where this custom was being practised,” said Khan.

However, when government agents initiated steps to end the practice, they faced hurdles from unexpected quarters. While men approved of the campaign, older women felt there was no reason for their younger counterparts to shrink away from a few days of suffering for the welfare of their families when they “willingly” shouldered the burden in their youth. “Also, as the practice is associated with religion, they did not want to invite the village deity’s wrath,” said Khan.

The administration countered this by roping in respected women panchayat representatives and youth icons for the cause. Securing the support of religious leaders was the next step in their strategy.

As each village has a deity that’s believed to influence the day-to-day lives of local residents, it became necessary to delink religion from the retrograde custom. So, district administration officials met priests associated with two major religious bodies in the region, the Kullu Devi Devta Kardar and Pujari Sangh, and impressed upon them the need to abolish the practice in the interests of women and children.

“They saw our point, and soon, several ‘deities’ came out in support of the campaign,” said Khan.

Dot Ram, president of the Kullu Devi Devta Kardar Sangh, said ‘Nari Garima’ enjoys his complete support. “We have even offered to help the district administrative by visiting villages during awareness camps. But the custom is deep-rooted, and ending it will take time,” he added. The campaign witnessed a festive launch, complete with songs, folk dances and street plays, at the Jana Panchayat of Naggar block near Manali on January 1. The next event of the kind is planned in remote Lag valley, and all the 92 panchayats will be covered over six months.

“I am personally monitoring the campaign. Our activists re-visit a village 15-20 days after an event to get feedback from women and their families,” said Khan, who will end the campaign with a survey to study its impact.