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Bane of menstrual huts: The story of women who are forced to spend their period days

Bane of menstrual huts: The story of women who are forced to spend their period days

Decades have gone by since untouchability was abolished by law. This practice sounds like folk tales to the new generation. But the sad fact remains that untouchability has not been wiped out completely. It continues to exist in many forms. One of which is theendarippura, huts to quarantine women during their periods.

Menstruation is still taboo in many communities. Women having periods are banned from entering the kitchen, from touching food and household items, and prevented from sleeping in the bedroom are just a few of the practices that are still followed. Menstruation and untouchability gained centre stage in the public discourse in Kerala after the Supreme Court verdict on allowing young women to enter Sabarimala.

The Adivasi community of Kanis who reside at Agasthyrakoodam hills in Thiruvananthapuram still follow the abhorrent tradition of quarantining menstruating women in menstrual huts (theendarippura) that are made in the jungle away from the settlement. These women are forced to stay in these huts for five to six days alone and are afraid for their lives, notwithstanding the complications that arise during periods. This too is an ironic reality in a country that spends crores of rupees on women's safety.

This is the story about menstrual huts at Anakal Ooru (village) in Agasthyakoodam and the lives of girls and women who are forced to spend a week of their lives every month in loneliness and terror.

Vijayalakshmi, a 14-year-old girl from Tanjavoor, was tragically killed when tornado Gaja wreaked havoc in Tamil Nadu in November 2018. She had her first period and her family forced her to stay in the menstrual hut near their home as per custom. She pleaded with her family to let her stay indoors when Gaja's impact was being felt strongly. But her family members did not allow her to do so. Finally, on the fatal 16th of November, a hapless Vijayalakshmi was crushed by a tree that fell on the hut during strong winds. By the time she was brought to the hospital, she was dead for hours. Even though international media reported this incident, it was not discussed much in the country. That's the power of rituals and customs in India.

One of the most tragic outcomes of menstrual huts can be seen at the Muthuvan Adivasi settlements at Idamalakkudy in the Idukki district. Over 2,000 women had to bear the consequences after resorting to measures to avoid being quarantined at menstrual huts. These women used to take over-the-counter contraceptive pills like Mala-D to stop or delay their periods. These women used to walk 18km through the forest to Munnar to get these pills. But they were grossly unaware of the side effects of unmonitored use of these medicines. There are 28 Muthuvan settlements and all menstruating women took to this method. There were women who ate these pills for eight years continuously. 177 of these women became sterile and others suffered from serious physical ailments. That's how the outside world came to know about this predicament. The government intervened and they built safer concrete rooms to solve the issue. The investigation following this revelation led us to the menstrual huts of Anakal Ooru.

This settlement is located farther away from all the other Kani settlements at Agasthyakoodam hills. The people are not just far away from their fellow tribesmen they follow a different lifestyle. The current population is 70, including women, children and the elderly. There are 18 single-room houses here. The members of this settlement are so steadfast in their traditional faith and customs that they declined the government's offer to build them houses using concrete. Their homes are made of clay, and cane leaves. They even dissuaded government officials from electrifying their village.

The tribesmen reluctantly allowed their children to get an education after continuous efforts from the government. But many are still deprived of this basic right because of the belief that learning to read and write will anger the Hill God. Eechooty, a nine-year-old boy, is one of those unlucky children. The lives of girls are even more pathetic. The majority of them are illiterate. So it does come as a sheer surprise that such a conservative community would hold on to the menstrual hut custom.

Menstrual huts are a part of the customs that are integral to their faith. The small frail huts made of palm fronds cannot even withstand a drizzle. It's in these fragile, shabby huts that girls and women in periods are forced to stay. More than the trauma of these young girls who are banned from touching anything in their own homes is the abject horror of having to spend a week alone.

They become alone after sunset. Snakes and other venomous beings can creep in anytime, apart from the attacks from wild animals and robbers. Wild elephants roam around the vicinity of the settlements most nights to plunder the farms. They come near these huts and go back. The women believe that the Hill Gods protect them from these animals. Not just elephants, antelopes, bison and wild boars also roam around the settlement at night. Though they are familiar with these creatures generally, during the lonely days in the menstrual huts, they go breathless in horror at the very sight of these animals.

The Woman of Substance

Lakshmi is one of the oldest women at Anakal Ooru with her three sons. Villagers call her Lechmi. It's only recently that pregnant women from the settlement started being taken to hospitals for delivery. Before that, mid-wives like Lechmi used to handle deliveries. She cuts the umbilical cords with a cane leaf that is sharper than surgical knives and applies herbs to protect them from infections. All the adolescent children at Anakal Ooru were brought to life by Lechmi. And she is proud of it: the woman who is as strong as the forest and very brave too.

When she knew we came from the city, she spoke freely about farming and taming three sons. But the mention of menstrual huts silenced her. She's more terrified of loneliness than wild animals. She spoke about women who were bitten by venomous creatures in those huts.

The ferocity of the forest becomes fiercer during the night. And you can experience it only with someone for company. Otherwise, it instils pure dread. Lechmi described the horrors of those nights in her own way. As children have started to go to school, she, and women like her, believe that menstrual huts and nights of terror will soon be things of the past.

It's still surprising that in a state with crores spent in funding and several dedicated departments for tribal welfare, menstrual quarantine is still being practised. Hope the authorities take notice now. Parvathy, Manju and Mala of the forest are waiting for those good days when they won't have to go through the horrors of menstrual huts.

Amba And Sons: The Latest Victims of Chaupadi

Nepalis consider menstruation as the most unclean bodily function. The practice of quarantining women during periods is called chaupadi in the Nepali language. When people build homes, they also make huts nearby for menstruating women to stay in. During periods, women are prohibited from seeing or talking to anyone and have to stay alone. Recently in the Western Bajura district near Nepal's capital Kathmandu, a woman Amba Bohara and her two sons suffocated from smoke and died.

Amba's period began during the coldest time in winter. She ventured out of the menstrual hut at night and started a fire for heat. The smoke from the fire filled the hut, killing the woman and her sons aged 10 and 12.

When her mother-in-law didn't find the children in the home in the morning, she went out looking for them and saw the tragic sight. These huts known as chau goth (chau meaning menses and goth meaning hut) are built without any ventilation. International media has condemned this and cited Amba and her sons as the latest victims of chaupadi in Nepal.

Police chief Uddab Singh said that they are investigating the case. During periods, women are forced to stay alone in these huts and are not allowed to attend religious functions. Last year a young girl died of a snake bite in a menstrual hut. After this, the government declared chaupadi a criminal offence with three months imprisonment and 3,000 rupees fine. The Nepal Supreme Court had decreed this practice a criminal offence in 2005.

But Amba's death proves that this savage tradition continues, say the media. The International Court of Justice has also intervened in this matter.

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TAGS:Menstrual hutsMenstruationUntouchability
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