When Chetana Madavi, 29, gets her period, she gathers a few clothes and makes her way to a kurma ghar — or menstruation hut — a few blocks from her home in a tribal community in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. It's a mud shack with a broken door and no toilet. When it rains, water leaks through the mud-tiled roof.
Phoolawanti Gangu Kova, 44, who lives in the same state (but in a different village), also heads to a menstrual hut when she is on her period — but it's a very different kind of hut. It has a fan, beds, mattresses, running water, a medical kit and an indoor toilet. There's a proper door and lock. She says it "feels like home." The exterior is made of bottle-bricks, a sustainable construction method in which used plastic bottles are filled with sand to resemble bricks.
She's new to this particular hut, which is part of an initiative by a nonprofit organization called Kherwadi Social Welfare Association. Since she first began menstruating, Kova had been going to a mud hut where she would sleep on the floor over a burlap sack. "I've been bitten by scorpions there, but what could I do? I had no option," Kova says.
Menstrual exile is a tradition etched deeply in some parts of India (as well as other parts of the world), and women often face consequences if they don't abide. Thus far, no one in Madavi's community has refused to follow the practice. Women who won't go along with it face community scorn and in some cases even financial penalties, says Amol Thaware, a project coordinator at the nonprofit. "The woman's family has to donate animals to the temple — a goat or a chicken. Or give a bag of rice or a few thousand rupees," he says.
The hut upgrade is that nonprofit's way of immediately addressing menstrual exile: If you can't get a community to reject the tradition of banishing a woman from her home when she is menstruating, at least make sure the menstrual hut is relatively safe and comfortable, says Nicola Monteiro, Thaware's colleague.
It's a controversial solution.
For years, the government and some nonprofits have led a movement to convince communities to get rid of the practice completely. That hasn't yet happened. As for the interim solution of improved huts, some menstrual health activists think it ends up validating the tradition of menstrual exile.
"It is like treating the symptoms and not the cause," says Pema Lhaki, executive director of the organization Nepal Fertility Care Center, who has worked extensively on menstrual rights in Nepal, including bringing a stop to menstrual exile.
Dilip Barsagade, executive director of Society for People's Action in Rural Services and Health (SPARSH), says you also have to consider the dignity of the women, not just creature comforts.
"You can shift them from a hut to a palace," he says. "But the core issue about their segregation is still not resolved."
"Can we allow women to die?"
Monteiro agrees that the nicer huts may not be a perfect solution but asks: "Can we allow women to die? Can we allow women to be sick and be uncomfortable?" And there are studies to back up her point that even temporary stays in the traditional huts can cause both short- and long-term health issues.
Unsanitary conditions in the traditional menstrual huts make women vulnerable to diarrhea, pneumonia and respiratory diseases, according to a United Nations bulletin.
One study, led by researchers from Nepal and the U.S., found that if women encounter any health issues during exile, they are expected to wait until their period is over before seeking medical care. The same study found that the practice takes a psychological toll on women, making them feel impure and abandoned.
Most huts also lack doors and/or are located in secluded areas. Some women staying in the huts report that they have suffered snakebites and physical assault, the study found.
Madavi says she feels scared when she's alone in the hut at night and sometimes asks her sister or a female neighbor to keep her company. "I often think to myself: 'Why am I doing this? Why can't I just stay at home?' " says Madavi. "But I don't have an option. If I don't follow the custom, my family will be ostracized."
The upgraded huts aren't just about comfort and safety
Monteiro says her organization plans to use the menstruation rooms as a way to connect with the community and to kick-start other activities that could help women develop new skills that may help them earn a livelihood.
"Women are not just coming [to the menstrual hut] to stay," says Thaware, Monteiro's colleague. "We're training them to use sanitary pads, we're teaching them how to sew face masks [as a source of livelihood] and we're showing them videos about menstrual health [that explain it's a natural process that doesn't require isolation]."
Critics say the goal should be to end the practice altogether
But the huts don't solve the real problem of menstrual exile, says Barsagade. The focus should be on changing mindsets and behavior. And that's not an impossible dream, he says. He says he knows of at least four villages where the practice died out on its own. Younger members of the community who get educated and move to cities understand that menstruation is a normal phenomenon and realize that the practice of menstrual exile is discriminatory and dangerous, says Barsagade. He says the perspective they gain from living away from home gives them the strength to stand up against the custom when they return to visit their village.
In other villages where his organization works, women are going only on the days when their flow is heavy. In the village of Ranbhumi, one nursing student refused to go to the menstrual hut altogether. Her decision, supported by her mother, created a shift among some in the village against the practice.
But defying a tradition that goes back generations — and one that people have immense faith in — requires guts, says Madavi. She thinks about rebelling but says she can't do it alone.
"Women from all the tribal-dominated villages need to come together and raise their voices against this custom," she says. "Maybe then it can be abolished."
Governments are thinking about intervening
In 2015, India's National Human Rights Commission ordered the state of Maharashtra to take steps to eradicate the practice of menstrual exile, calling it "a violation of human rights." A committee was charged with looking into the issue, but Barsagade, who is one of the members, says the committee has met only twice.
He says governments are wary of intervening in issues where religious practices or traditions are involved. Efforts to end the practice could be viewed as government overreach because the Indian Constitution guarantees protection of tribal customs. A few years ago, authorities in Maharashtra built new huts and refurbished several existing ones by equipping them with bowls, plates, water containers, mats, cots and cupboards where women could keep their clothes. But many communities didn't accept these modifications. Now, most of the huts are lying unused and dilapidated, says Barsagade.
In recent months, Barsagade has been flooded with requests from women to build new menstrual huts with amenities. But he still isn't sold on new huts as a solution, even though he has mixed feelings about denying those requests. "We tell them that this is not the solution, but turning them down is tricky," says Barsagade. "Everyone wants electricity and proper sanitation — so when we say no, we feel like we're depriving them of comfort."
The bottom line, says Lhaki, the menstrual health activist from Nepal, is that building new menstrual huts could set a bad precedent. What needs to be pursued, she says, is social change, even if it takes a very long time.
"You have to keep at it — it's like pouring water over a stone to break it down," Lhaki says.