“It is common knowledge in the village who is menstruating”

a photo gallery by Maria Contreras Coll

Taboo (Issue I/2021)

  • 14-year-old Surekha in front of the mud hut where she stayed alone during her first period. The huts are built to keep women away from their village during their menstrual period

    14-year-old Surekha in front of the mud hut where she stayed alone during her first period. The huts are built to keep women away from their village during their menstrual period

  • Surekha recorded this experience in her diary

    Surekha recorded this experience in her diary

  • In most villages, several menstruating women share a hut. Often these are poorly ventilated and offer no protection from the cold and poisonous insects. Time and again women die as a result of these poor conditions

    In most villages, several menstruating women share a hut. Often these are poorly ventilated and offer no protection from the cold and poisonous insects. Time and again women die as a result of these poor conditions

  • The only utensils a woman is allowed to use during her menstruation are a comb, toothbrush, cups and plates. For food and water, the women depend on neighbors to take care of them

    The only utensils a woman is allowed to use during her menstruation are a comb, toothbrush, cups and plates. For food and water, the women depend on neighbors to take care of them

  • Surekha in the hut where she spends her first menstruation. “I don't feel unclean at all. I feel the same as before,” she says

    Surekha in the hut where she spends her first menstruation. “I don't feel unclean at all. I feel the same as before,” she says

  • The view from the hut into the valley in the Achham region

    The view from the hut into the valley in the Achham region

  • Menstrual periods are viewed in Hinduism as the gods' punishment for the sins of women. Women obey the custom because they fear misfortune, disease and death if they do not follow the rules

    Menstrual periods are viewed in Hinduism as the gods' punishment for the sins of women. Women obey the custom because they fear misfortune, disease and death if they do not follow the rules

  • Surekha has climbed a tree and is eating a fruit. In some areas of Nepal, women are prohibited from touching trees or eating their fruits during their period

    Surekha has climbed a tree and is eating a fruit. In some areas of Nepal, women are prohibited from touching trees or eating their fruits during their period

  • Surekha is watching movies on her cell phone with a friend

    Surekha is watching movies on her cell phone with a friend

  • The activist Radha Paudel (left) has been fighting against the “Chhaupadi” custom for ten years with educational classes in schools. More and more women are resisting the strict rules

    The activist Radha Paudel (left) has been fighting against the “Chhaupadi” custom for ten years with educational classes in schools. More and more women are resisting the strict rules

  • The Radha Paudel Foundation organizes drawing competitions on the subject of menstruation and thus conveys a more positive image to the students

    The Radha Paudel Foundation organizes drawing competitions on the subject of menstruation and thus conveys a more positive image to the students

  • In May 2018, the “Menstrual Hygiene Day” was celebrated for the first time in the capital Kathmandu. With slogans like “Menstruation is my strength and my pride” women have been demonstrating against the stigma every year since then

    In May 2018, the “Menstrual Hygiene Day” was celebrated for the first time in the capital Kathmandu. With slogans like “Menstruation is my strength and my pride” women have been demonstrating against the stigma every year since then


Ms Contreras Coll, where did you get the idea for your photo project in Nepal?

Ever since I got my first period I have the impression that there is a lot of misinformation on the subject. Menstruation is a big taboo even here in the western world. As a child you are laughed at when you have your period and in advertising it is still depicted as a blue liquid. In 2015 I read a newspaper article that women in Nepal are considered unclean and have to sleep in isolated huts when they are menstruating. This shocked me. I did some research and decided to go to Nepal and document this story.

You then spent a year there. What did you see?

I met the women's rights activist Radha Paudel, for example, who who said: “It's important to show the Chhaupadi custom. But equally people should know that we are making a difference.” I went with local NGOs to several villages in western Nepal. In the village it is always common knowledge who is menstruating. We asked around and I interviewed and photographed the women. After I had been in a hut with a menstruating woman and had touched her, I was asked to drink cattle urine to purify myself. But that did not really surprised me. My research meant I was well prepared.

This photo series depicts a girl who has her period for the first time.

All the time I was looking to capture the moment that changes everything: the first menstruation. Before that girls are considered divine, they are involved in some rituals as a purifying figure. And then the day arrives that suddenly changes their lives. I asked around for a long time then I finally got a call from an NGO. In one of the villages a girl had got her first period. I went there and met Surekha. I documented her everyday life, her time in insolation inside the hut. We talked about how she was doing. It really touched me when she said: “I don't feel unclean at all. I feel the same as before.”

Where does the Chhaupadi custom come from?

In Hinduism, menstruation is considered as punishment from the gods for the sins of the woman. That is why menstruating women are not allowed to enter temples, touch food or water and must keep away from others. Chhaupadi is especially widespread in in rural areas, but the stigma is everywhere. Through awareness raising by women, however, is gradually spreading the message that bleeding is natural and that nothing happens if you don't follow the tradition.

The interview was conducted by Leonie Düngefeld



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