Director: Rajin Maharjan
Running time: 9mins
Chhaupadi is a form of menstrual taboo, which prohibits women and girls from participating in normal family activities while menstruating. It is primarily practiced in rural areas of western Nepal, but is also practiced by some residents of cities – and all over the country with different names and prohibitions. One of its associated practices has been menstrual exile – the forcing of women into huts during their period.
This particular practice has been made illegal in recent years, amid a sustained campaign for change. However, as is the case anywhere in the world, ‘tradition’ dies hard – even when it costs people the highest of prices. A 2019 report from Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission found that at least 15 women had died in menstrual exile over a spell of 13 years.
Among its recommendations, the report called for students to be made aware about the possible consequences of the practice, by including lessons on chhaupadi in the school curriculum. Nepal’s Menstrual Movement: Tackling Taboos seems to be one such effort to spread the word, and help women across Nepal fight for their rights.
Ably fronted by Nepalese film actor Keki Adhikari, the film takes a brief look at how students are being taught about menstruation in new ways across Nepal, as well as showcasing some simple yet effective ways schools can better support pupils who are menstruating. It is a noble cause, and director Rajin Maharjan should be commended for helping push the issue forward in a simple and accessible manner.
Viewed as part of a series fronted by Keki Adhikari, I can see how this might be an effective tool for communicating with a wide audience. The problem is that its first episode is being sent to film festivals as a stand-alone movie, and that is where it tends to fall a bit short.
This first instalment of Nepal’s Menstrual Movement: Tackling Taboos takes the typical approach of any classroom series – if you were in school in the last 30 years you can hear the conversational, informal tone deployed by its host to try and connect with its audience. That means it is also a little reluctant to touch on any of the heavy stuff yet. Because building a relationship with the viewer before deploying important messages takes precedent, most of that has been left for ‘next time’.
Looking at this as a film in its own right, then, it leaves us with more questions than answers – and needing to do a fair amount of our own research after. None of the information at the start of this article features in the film – which would be quite an omission if this were all there is.
I suspect that Rajin Maharjan knows all this, of course. And I suspect that his full series does a much better job of touching on the consequences of the taboo; illustrating why it needs to be challenged – and most importantly, how young people can challenge it. As far as I can see here, this particular episode is in need of a call to action, a suggestion of what to actually do with this information if your school is not among those being proactive on the issue.
There are some promising signs that this would happen. Particularly, this film avoids talking down to young people – and makes their voices an integral part of its message through several patient interview segments, either giving space for the experience of the children, or gently challenging their parents on the matter. In a larger format, this suggests the series does manage to provide plenty of food for thought – even if it struggles to get going here.