In Nepal, many women leave their homes during their periods and sequester themselves in closet-size huts made of mud or rock.
When Amba Bohara’s period came this week, she followed a familiar routine in western Nepal. Considered impure in her village because she was menstruating, Ms Bohara barricaded herself in a tiny hut, built a fire and braced for an icy winter night with her two young children.
By Wednesday morning, all three were dead.
“It seems they died from suffocation,” said Uddhab Singh Bhat, the deputy superintendent of police in the area. “The hut was so small. It was very difficult to breathe.”
Ms Bohara and her children were the latest victims of a centuries-old tradition of banishing menstruating women and girls from their family homes. Though Nepal criminalised the practice last year, many villages in the country continue to follow the taboo, known as chhaupadi in Nepali.
During their periods, women living in places where chhaupadi is followed are unable to visit temples, use other villagers’ kitchen utensils or wash in communal water sources. Some religious Hindus consider it bad luck to touch menstruating women and girls.
Instead, they leave their homes and sequester themselves in closet-size huts made of mud or rock, sometimes sleeping next to goats.
Each year, at least one or two women die in the huts — typically from exposure, animal bites or smoke inhalation after building fires to stay warm during the Himalayan winters. Reports of sexual assault from men who prey on women while they stay alone are also common.
Many women who follow chhaupadi say they do so out of social pressure or guilt.
A Nepali government survey from 2010, which was cited in a State Department human rights report, found that 19 per cent of women aged 15-49 in the country followed chhaupadi. In Nepal’s midwestern and far western regions, the proportion climbed to 50 per cent.
Nepal’s Supreme Court banned the practice in 2005, and last August the government went a step further by criminalising it. Anyone who forces menstruating women into the huts now faces up to three months in jail.
But women’s rights activists say the law has had little effect, particularly in western Nepal, one of the poorest pockets of Asia, where it is still politically unpopular for local representatives to oppose the taboo. So far, no one has been charged for following chhaupadi.
“The situation is miserable,” said Mohna Ansari, a member of the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal. “It seems nothing is changing.”
In a telephone interview, Khadak Bahadur Bohara sobbed as he related what happened this week to Ms Bohara, his 35-year-old sister-in-law.
On Tuesday evening, the second day of her period, she fed her family’s cattle in the village of Budhinanda and collected wood to build a fire in the hut.
With her husband working as a manual labourer in India, Ms Bohara also scooped up her two children, Suresh, 9, and Ramit, 7, and shut them inside the hut with her.
Amba Bohara placed a large stone in front of the door to block others from entering.
The next morning, when her mother-in-law brought cups of tea to the hut, she saw smoke seeping out from cracks in the walls. Relatives struggled to break the door. Once inside, they found a gruesome scene: Bohara’s legs were charred. Foam bubbled out from the children’s mouths.
“This has broken my heart,” Khadak Bohara said of the three deaths.
In interviews, senior police officials said they were investigating and would decide whether any charges would be applied after autopsies were performed and the woman’s husband was contacted.
Rewati Raman Bhandari, a former lawmaker who drafted the measure that criminalised chhaupadi, said the push to eradicate the practice — from villagers, the police and local politicians — was still far too muted.
“Tradition is stronger than the law,” he said.