Inadequate access to sanitation and hygiene affects women and girls disproportionally, especially those of a disadvantaged socio-economic status in developing countries. There seems to be a direct correlation between health and poverty in these remote areas as there is often poor access to basic resources and inadequate bathing and latrine facilities. Women not only face conditions that are adverse to their health, but also culturally determined codes of conduct, superstition, and tradition, often based on patriarchal values, surrounding natural bodily functions, such as the menstrual cycle.
Ignoring natural bodily functions due to a lack of adequate facilities, ignorance, or superstition causes not only discomfort, but also increases the risk of serious health issues such as urinary tract infections, gynaecological diseases, chronic constipation, and mental stress. In order to improve the situation of women and girls in rural areas of Nepal, I started the Naldjorma Project, which seeks to empower and educate women (starting with nuns) on sanitation and health. Educating women will hopefully not only improve their lives, but also the lives of those around them, as women are the key managers of natural resources and thus powerful agents of change.
Gender bias is still pervasive in many cultures, economies, and political and social institutions around the world. Women continue to face unacceptable levels of discrimination and abuse, which prevents them from playing an equal role in society and in decision-making.
But I found that in rural Nepal, the position of women is especially precarious. Nepal is a developing country with a multitude of problems at the community level. For one, women are limited in their potential due to pervasive traditional patriarchal social values, a chronic lack of education (the literacy rate for women is only 40 per cent), and the potential to own their own income. Women usually marry early in life and are then deprived from right to control their own reproductive systems. Maternal and infant death rates in rural Nepal are high (170 deaths for every 100,000 pregnancies) and the trafficking of women remains an integral part of the social and economic fabric of Nepal. Women are treated as a commodity, a practice that causes intolerable degradation and mental and physical suffering.
To empower women in rural Nepal, education is needed. Teaching women the skills they need to earn their own income not only improves their independence, it also strengthens their position in the household. If their increased economic participation leads to an increased share of income, the women can contribute to the household, and hopefully increase their influence in household decision-making.
One of the most serious problems in Nepal is the lack of the necessary health and sanitation facilities and a lack of knowledge about sanitation and hygiene. Some communities have no toilet facilities and use open spaces near residences for defecation. These problems constitute a major threat to the health of the people in the community as well as to the surrounding environment. And it is women and girls who are disproportionately affected by the lack of access to sanitation facilities, safe water, and hygiene. Not only are there no facilities the women can use to keep themselves clean, but due to cultural superstitions related to the menstrual cycle, women and girls are banned from their own homes and often locked in sheds when they are on their period because they are considered impure. In such places, women and girls have no access to the nessesary means of sanitation. Access to safe water and sanitation is a fundamental human right, but, as mentioned, the problem in Nepal does not just lie with a lack of such facilities, but also in traditional patriarchal beliefs about women’s bodily functions.
The Naldjorma Project
To break the silence and the hold of superstition surrounding the topic of the menstrual cycle, and to further the understanding of women about their natural bodily functions and health and sanitation practices, the Naldjorma Project has organized a number of presentations in nunneries. During our visits we provide medical checkups and counsel the nuns on female health. After all, without proper sanitation and hygiene, one’s health is at risk, and so is the maintenance of one’s spiritual practice. It is our goal is to make knowledge of female health as accepted as the other education the nuns receive, to overcome aversion to the topic, and to create an environment in which nuns can articulate their needs and concerns.
We began our work in nunneries as we noticed that there was a big difference in the support provided to male and female monastics in Nepal. And in an environment where reproduction and ones reproduction facilities are a taboo subject, education about basic female health practices was much needed. During one of our initial visits to Kopan Nunnery, we soon realized that the lack of knowledge about a women’s health, superstition, and lack of sanitation facilities were more pervasive problems. One we should address not only in nunneries but also beyond.
Educating the nuns, girls, and the wider community about the menstrual cycle, is a crucial step in addressing discrimination and exclusion. Educating girls and women about feminine hygiene and biology helps to overthrow myths and cultural superstitions. Access to information about hygiene and adequate sanitary materials enables women to feel more confident and comfortable with their bodies. In addition, it is women who hold the responsibility of managing health and hygiene at home (preparing food and general cleaning). Educating women on proper health and hygiene thus also benefits the wider community.
The work we do through the Naldjorma Project has been done with personal resources and the kind donations of a few humble sponsors that we arranged through our Facebook page. My last visit to Nepal in March would not have been possible if not for the kind invitation to present an academic paper on “Health and Sanitation for Women” at the Nalanda International Conference. My humble gratitude goes out to Ministry of Culture of the Indian government for the invitation, and to a generous and kindhearted sponsor who covered the costs of my stay in Nepal and all the medicines I took with me.
In the future, we hope to expand our work from the nunneries and into remote areas in Nepal, to local communities. To achieve this, however, we need generous and compassionate people who believe in our project and want to embrace this big challenge that is empowering women in Nepal.
True harmony can only come about when there is a worldwide change of understanding about women’s rights and needs, and this will consist of a gradual process of change where female monastic issues are taken forward alongside a genuine expansion of awareness of women’s physical and spiritual wellbeing. That is why the Naldjorma Project is engaged in promoting essential values to improve the situation of women in Nepa: we strive for a better quality of life, and the option of choice for the women, free from dogma and superstition.
For as long as space remains,
For as long as sentient beings remain,
Until then may I too remain
To dispel the miseries of the world.
Sonia Gomes, PhD, is a marketing and branding consultant, wellness business owner, and yoga teacher. She is also the founder of the Naldjorma Project, an organization aimed at improving women’s rights and opportunities, currently involved in a project on health and empowerment in Nepal.
The Naldjorma Project
International decade For Action “Water For Life” (UNDESA)
“Women empowerment; a challenge in Nepal” (Rabin Thapa)
Equity in School Water and Sanitation: Overcoming Exclusion and Discrimination in South Asia (UNICEF)