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From darkness to light

TEXT & PHOTOS: NIRJANA SHARMA

On a cold winter night in February in Humla, when Janta Kami was suffering from immense labor pain, her in-laws, Dhaneshor and Janu Kala Kami, took her to a cold, decrepit shed near their home. She was forced to endure long hours of childbirth without any medical assistance. The 19 year old gave birth to a baby girl she later named Bhawana in the shed with only her mother-in-law to guide her through the process.

It is a common practice in Humla to take pregnant women to sheds or chhaupadi to give birth. The shed is a small hut constructed mainly for women to use during their monthly cycle and while giving birth. The superstition that women are impure during the time of their monthly cycle is prevalent at large in the Karnali region. Even on the onset of labor pain, women are taken to the shed or chhaupadi instead of health post or hospital.


Bhawana Kami was six days old when a mouse bit off a part of her nose. Doctors have advised surgery but her family can´t afford the treatment.

“Following labor, my daughter and I were to spend 25 days in the same shed despite the cold. That is the tradition but due to an unfortunate event our stay was shortened,” says Janta, remembering those days in the chhaupadi with just a bed of straw and a thin blanket that didn’t keep her warm.

The shed Janta was confined into had no windows and the door couldn’t be shut properly. In mid February, around the time when Janta gave birth, Humla’s temperature is low enough for rain and snowfall. According to the chhaupadi norm, women have to take baths every day during their time in the shed irrespective of the weather conditions.

The unfortunate incident Janta was referring to was this. Janta had gone out to the communal tap for the ritual bath when a mouse finding its way inside the hut through one of the numerous holes in the mud and straw walls bit off a portion of Bhawana’s nose.

Hearing the baby cry, it was Dhaneshor who rushed to the chhaupadi to attend to her. He took her to a hospital 15 minutes away from home. It was only when the health attendant reprimanded him that he realized for the first time ever that leaving a newly born baby and the mother in such terrible conditions was wrong.

“I allowed Janta to return home that day, though the tradition called for women to stay in the shed for 25 days. I was determined to never follow the chhaupadi system again,” said Dhaneshor.

For the Kami family, things were looking up. Bhawana’s wounds were healing albeit a bit too slowly. Simikot too seemed to mimic their mood and was becoming warmer. However, the happiness was short-lived. The Dalit family had to face snide, sarcastic comments from the locals.
People who passed by Kami’s home on the way to the fields would not miss a single opportunity to make fun of Bhawana. Some said she would never be able to wear a Bulaki, a traditional nose ornament worn by women of Thakuri and Dalit community in Humla. Others said that Dhaneshor would now have to look after her forever as she has very less chances of ever getting married.

“The taunts were so hard to bear that we even prayed to God to take her away. At least, she wouldn’t have to bear such brutality,” said Janu, Bhawana’s 52-year old paternal grandmother.

But today the entire family is fond of the adorable two-year-old. Her clumsy walk, stubby fingers, and toothy smile have won them over. Bhawana follows her grandparents, and her grandparents, in turn, schedule their activities around her.

“Our Bhawana has paid very dearly for our mistakes. I can only pray for forgiveness,” adds Janu with a catch in her voice.

However, reality has taken a toll on the family and Dhaneshor constantly worries about raising Bhawana. Doctors at the Simkot District Hospital have advised the family to get a surgery done in Kathmandu before she turns seven. The only source of income is whatever Dhaneshor makes from greenhouse farming and other small odd jobs.

“The cost of the treatment is very high. It’s impossible for us to arrange such a hefty amount,” says the young mother. The doctors have estimated the cost of the surgery to be around Rs 150,000. The Kami family won’t be able to save such a huge amount as they already have a hand to mouth existence.

Janta and her elder sister in-law assist Dhaneshor in farming which is possible only five months every year as the temperature in Humla drops to down to negative and the region even sees heavy snowfall. After marrying Janta, 25-year-old Rabi Kami, Dhaneshor’s second son came to Kathmandu in search of work along with his three brothers. They haven’t been able to visit the family as the district is yet to be connected with the national road network and the hour-long flight from Nepalgunj to Simkot costs Rs 11,400, a sum too hefty for them.

The guilt and regret for following chhaupadi tradition live on in the Kami family with Bhawana’s presence being a constant reminder. However, the scenario hasn’t changed in the region. Women in almost all the districts in Karnali are compelled to stay in the shed for three days during their periods and can rejoin their family only after taking bath on the fourth day. The norm is even harsher for new mothers who have to stay there along with their newborn babies for 20 to 25 days. Irrespective of their critical health condition post delivery, the women have to bathe every single day.

Bhawana’s case might have been an extreme one but given the condition of women and children in the region, it’s evident that victims are aplenty. Someday, Dhaneshor’s princess will be old enough to understand what happened to her nose. Perhaps she’ll even be strong enough to face the stigma of the chhaupadi curse. Or maybe she’ll become one of those many depressed girls who are yet to break their silences.

nirjanasharma@gmail.com 

Source- Republica Daily

Link- http://theweek.myrepublica.com/details.php?news_id=69198

Published on 2014-02-07 10:01:34
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About nirjanasharma

Journalist.

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