For about a week each month, young Nepalese women have to play by a different set of rules. They aren't allowed to touch fruit or dairy or flowers or any of their male relatives. They can't look at the sun or at themselves in the mirror, and they're often banned from attending school or even reading books. They live in isolation, separate from the rest of their family, until they finish their periods.
Cultural taboos associated with menstruation are pervasive around the world, and Nepal, where adolescent girls and young women are considered "impure" while they're on their periods, is no exception. Many in western Nepalese communities are traditionally segregated during menstruation, for fear of "contamination" based on superstition.
In 2005, Nepal's supreme court outlawed the practice of sequestering females during menstruation, but that hasn't been enough to stop it from happening, or to improve the conditions under which many teenage girls live every month. According to WaterAid, an organization working to provide clean water around the world, many young Nepalese people say they're forced to wash their menstrual products in cordoned-off areas without access to clean water or are prevented from bathing while they're on their periods, posing threats to their health.
To highlight the way that shame and seclusion interferes in the lives of people who menstruate, WaterAid gave cameras to a group of Nepalese teenagers, allowing the young women to capture the true effect of menstrual stigma in a powerful series of photographs. Explaining the photos in their own words, the girls don't just illustrate how that stigma plays out, but also state plainly how it marginalizes them and limits their opportunities.
"The house where I stayed during my first menstruation is 15 minutes away from my own house," Bisheshta Bhandari, one of the girls who participated in the project, said in a statement about her photos. "Unlike my friends, though, I do not have many restrictions during menstruation, I was bound to stay out of my home."
The emotional implications of that separation can be catastrophic for young girls just entering adolescence. As Bandana Khadka, another of the young photographers, explained, being forcibly separated from her family and forbidden from touching others makes her feel "unloved."
"We need lots of love and support during our menstruation, but when I am separated and treated like an untouchable I feel no love from my mother and father and I feel only hatred," Khadka said.
But there are also serious concerns about girls' and women's physical safety as a result of segregation and menstrual stigma. Due to poor sanitation and lack of access to menstrual products, many Nepalese females — and people with periods in other parts of the world — face threats to their health and hygiene every month.
"When there are no safe, private toilets in schools, girls often skip school during their period, or drop out of school altogether once they reach adolescence," WaterAid CEO Barbara Frost said in a statement. "With nowhere hygienic to clean sanitary pads or wash, women and girls also risk infection."
Indeed, the need for more spaces to safely clean menstrual products is a recurrent theme in the photos, which capture girls waiting in line for latrines at school or washing pads in local canals. Several of the teen photographers in the WaterAid project said they've started pushing back against restrictions that force them to wash their menstrual products separately, trying to secure safety for themselves and others.
But the girls know it will take more than a series of photos to change their culture; for them, it's about making sure other young people are educated too.
Or, as Sushma Diyali, one of the photographers, put it, "Only if my friends just like me could grow in an environment where are no limitations regarding menstruation and receive more support from the families they can set themselves free and explore greater potential and opportunities around them."