For Radha, dinner is served at 7. She crouches down behind a shed, a good distance from her house, then waits. She knows what the menu will be: boiled rice, the same as yesterday and the day before. She knows that it will be her little sister who will serve it, throwing the rice onto her plate from a height, the way you would feed a dog.
In Jamu, Radha’s village in western Nepal, her status is lower than a dog’s, because she is menstruating. She is only 16, yet, for the length of her period, Radha can’t enter her house or eat anything but boiled rice. She can’t touch other women – not even her grandmother or sister – because her touch will pollute them.
If she touches a man or a boy, he will start shivering and sicken. If she eats butter or buffalo milk, the buffalo will sicken too and stop milking. If she enters a temple or worships at all, her gods will be furious and take their revenge, by sending snakes or some other calamity.
Here, menstruation is dirty, and a menstruating girl is a powerful, polluting thing. A thing to be feared and shunned.
After dinner, Radha prepares for bed. Darkness falls fast in Jamu and without mains electricity, the villagers follow old rhythms and sleep with the dark. Radha’s parents are both migrant workers in India, so she lives with her grandmother. Their house has a solar-powered light, as does the one opposite, where I’m staying with my travelling companions: the Communications and Gender Officer for WaterAid Nepal and our photographer.
The light is no use to Radha this week because her bed is elsewhere. She leads me over the thoroughfare of pebbles and rocks that passes for a road, suitable only for motorcycles and walkers. Cars and buses must stop at the river, a four-hour walk away. We walk up a steep hill, through long snake grass, to a small lean-to structure. It looks like an animal shed, but is smaller and meaner. This is the shed where the village’s menstruating women and girls sleep.
In the winter, Radha sleeps on the tiny enclosed ground floor, no bigger than a crawl space. The summer accommodation is an earthen floor on a platform above, four-foot square. Except for a grass roof, it is open to the elements.
There is not space even for one person to lie down, but tonight there will be three. Radha’s relative Jamuna is also menstruating, and she’ll be sleeping here along with her one-year-old son. Still, Radha appreciates the company, as another woman is some protection against drunken men who conveniently forget about untouchability when it comes to rape. Although the stigma keeps women silent, rapes of women sleeping in these sheds are common enough to appear as occasional items in newspapers in faraway Kathmandu, and common enough for women to look down when they are mentioned. Also common are snake attacks. (I saw three snakes there in three days.)