Dr. Rohini Nepal
COVID and menstruation: two peas in a pod?
The whole world came to a standstill after COVID- 19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO in March 2020. A mere virus but so contagious and fatal that the fundamentally social human beings were compelled to be isolated. Looking at it from another perspective, it has become an example of how something so small can rattle the entire world and change its usual ways. Due to this unforeseen situation, going out was no more an option but, people found alternative ways to stay connected via means of technology. These very same technological advances that were debatable earlier on the grounds of promoting social isolation now turned out to be promoting social interaction from afar. Not only did it help promote social interaction at such desperate times but it also helped save lives. Yet another surprising turn of events while coping with the ongoing situation.
Utilizing technology, Health Foundation Nepal (HFN) set out to offer medical help to the people of the entire country for free. They set up a telemedicine service whereby we volunteer doctors provided medical treatment and advice to patients. Most cases we dealt with were mild COVID-infected patients. One of the paramount pieces of advice we gave them on testing COVID positive was to isolate themselves from the entire family in a separate room for a span of 2 weeks. Despite the emphasis on how this could save other lives and flatten the curve, it was a challenge for most. This got me thinking about menstruation and its orthodox rituals still being followed in Nepal.
In the Hindu community of Nepal, when a girl starts menstruating, she has to follow rituals of isolation for about 2 weeks. Uncanny resemblance, right? However, there is a difference. COVID-positive patients are not restricted from worshipping their god but a menstruating girl is forbidden from doing so. Every month when she is menstruating, she is restricted from entering the temple, entering the kitchen, attending religious events, touching plants or male members of the family and the list continues. These practices are rampant in rural areas compared to urban areas. Despite “Chhaupadi” (the extreme menstrual seclusion practice of living in menstrual huts) being a punishable offense by law since 2017, it is still being practiced in rural areas of Nepal.
The low literacy rate in rural areas could be deemed accountable for the continuation of these menstrual seclusion practices. But how do we explain most women in urban areas still abiding by these restrictive rules? “Nachune bhako” which translates to I have become untouchable is still a term used by many educated women (including medical professionals) to state they have gotten their period which is quite baffling. Isolation due to a life-threatening contagious disease is considered challenging and questionable but isolation due to a normal biologic process is normalized despite its challenges. Shouldn’t this be the other way round? We continue to evolve with knowledge every passing day so, our traditions need to evolve with us. However, breaking free from years old unevolved tradition is always a challenge. Perhaps our deep-rooted internalization of these primitive traditions is what needs to be conditioned to bring about change.
Change starts at home with us. Let us all introspect to do our part. Let us all be advocates for change starting from our homes and communities.No matter how small, our actions make a difference. If something as minuscule as a virus has the power to change the world’s ways, so do we.
-Dr. Rohini Nepal