In Nepal, a storytelling initiative engages local women in dispelling stigma surrounding menstrual hygiene
The story of Kumari seeks to empower the women of Nepal to voice their discomfort with practices that should be critiqued, but have been pushed behind a veneer of culture.
On 25 April 2015, a 7.8 magnitude quake ravaged Nepal, killing 9,000 people and damaging over 6,00,000 structures in Kathmandu and nearby areas, some of which turned to dust from the impact. In the aftermath of the seismic disaster, while national and international humanitarian organisations came to the rescue of those affected, a troubling lack of menstrual hygiene management was observed in the relief measures that followed. A study carried out in three villages in the Sindhupalchowk district found that none of the respondents had reported receiving menstrual products as relief materials in the first month since the earthquake.
For Sophie Maliphant, who was in Nepal when the quake occurred, the crisis allowed her to look at the Himalayan nation anew. The same year, she published The Country That Shook, a children's book which aimed to reintroduce young readers to the earthquake without invoking trauma. While the book initiated conversations about the catastrophe among students in some UK schools, in Nepal, the proceeds from the sales helped rebuild a school in Solukhumbu. Three years later when Maliphant, a UK-based graphic designer, visited the school, she began to learn about the different menstrual practices observed in rural Nepal, including chhhaupadi or menstrual huts.
Though outlawed in 2005 and criminalised in 2017, the tradition of chhaupadi — which banishes menstruating women to huts, forbidding them to enter the shared spaces within their homes — is still prevalent in many Nepalese communities, most notably in the far western region. "It’s not an alien idea to me to see separation and menstruation side by side. Sometimes separation is practised to honour the body and to care for the downward pull of energy that happens during menstruation, but to see that the differentiation was happening in Nepal in a way that made women feel impure and dirty was serious," recounts Maliphant. It was this realisation which spurred Kumari and her Moon Cycle — a storybook illustrated by multiple Nepalese girls and women from different regions, and written by Maliphant herself.
Named after 17-year-old Sarita Gurung's deceased mother, Kumari and her Moon Cycle is a fictional story of a young Nepalese woman whose "surprise discovery of a bicycle in her village in the Nepalese Himalayas leads her on a journey through the nature of her female body, empowering her to make her own decisions and fully appreciate her innate wisdom." Maliphant had met Gurung, a Dhading native, at a workshop she helped conduct in her village a few years ago and the two have been in contact since. Now, their conversations about Kumari have been memorialised in the initial chapters of the book.
Though a work in progress, the story of Kumari seeks to empower Nepalese women to voice their discomfort with practices that should be critiqued, but have been pushed behind a veneer of culture. "I was thinking of a way to evolve the workshops we had already conducted or funded. I’ve always felt that even though workshops tend to be informative, they ultimately do not create a support system around women to rely on — an issue faced across a lot of countries where people are trying to improve hygiene standards through both education and resources." Therefore, once Kumari and her Moon Cycle is published in English and various Nepalese languages, Maliphant along with a network of activists and aid workers, plan to follow it over a three-week programme, where each chapter will inspire dialogues on the interdependence of menstrual hygiene, self-worth, bullying, human rights, politics, and feminism.
While most of the illustrators associated with the project have never met Maliphant, they somehow found a way to work with her through social media. Interestingly, none of them have had a formal art education; however, their involvement has led to the inadvertent fulfillment of one of the objectives of the book — to make young artists view their hobbies as valuable. And these artists aim to paint a candid picture of Nepalese society, its sensibilities and contradictions. "Menstruation is nothing to be embarrassed of. In fact, we should think of it as a shared experience," says illustrator Ashma Dahal. Another artist from the Terai region, Puja Gupta adds, "Kumari's journey will simplify the ramifications of orthodox menstrual practices, some of which may not seem detrimental at first."
When the time comes to send the draft to print, Maliphant wants Kumari and her Moon Cycle to feature illustrations from at least 30 local artists, reflecting the ethos of a sustainable, egalitarian community — devoid of formal hierarchies. However, she also acknowledges that the lived experiences of the people, even within a community could be different. Those differences can also be observed in how overtly change has been embraced by different groups in Nepal and Maliphant is witness to it. "There's been a slow change which is significant because quick changes are usually untenable. Quite often, I get messages from men who want the workshops to come to their villages so that their wives and daughters are educated around hygiene and self-care. Although that still doesn’t apply to every family and there's a lot of work to be done, it's at least becoming less of a taboo to say the words."
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