By Shristi Kafle
JUMLA, Nepal, Oct. 26, 2016 (Xinhua) -- Sixteen-year-old Manisha Khatri had her first menstrual period last year, which saw her being kept in a shed-- a separate, sunlight-less hut like structure near her home for seven days.
She was neither allowed to touch the male members of the family, cattle or crops, nor enter kitchen or rooms and perform her regular activities. However, it did not become a matter of surprise for her as she had already witnessed the similar practice during periods of her two elder sisters.
Since then, every month during periods, the tenth-grader stays in the same dark shed which has a small bed and a blanket with no windows. For many like Khatri, those five to seven days of a month are like facing any severe punishment, especially during winters when the temperature dips below zero degrees.
"My mother says if we don't follow these practice, it will displease deities and invite problems in our lives. I read that menstruation is a normal bodily process in health subject in my school, but I failed to convince my parents", Manisha Khatri shared with Xinhua near her father-owned hotel in the bus park area in main town.
The social practice, specifically a cultural tradition mixed with religious beliefs, is widely known as 'Chhaupadi' in the Nepali society. It is prevalent in the remote western part of the country since years despite a ban being imposed by the Supreme Court in 2005.
During the periods, women are superstitiously regarded as 'untouchables', thus are prohibited to live a normal routine life. The practice is still heavily wide spread in Karnali, the largest but least developed region, which comprises five districts Kalikot, Jumla, Mugu, Dolpa and Humla.
But things are gradually changing in mountain district Jumla, the zonal headquarters of Karnali, some 850 kilometers away from the capital city.
Since last three months, Manisha is engaged in athletics and runs for more than a hour every morning and evening. She recognizes every hills that surround her small town and is familiar to all the ups and downs.
Athletics has provided a new confidence on her as she doesn't fear or feel shy any more to talk with family members, teachers or even strangers.
Manisha told Xinhua, "Some of my friends joined athletics so I followed them. I feel physically fit and confident these days. If I performed well in athletics, I am sure one day I will be able to convince my parents that it is not necessary to live in sheds during periods in fear of sin or curse by Gods."
In Jumla bazaar alone, more than 20 young girls practice athletics in the recent months under Karnali Sports Club. They practice every day and have even participated in different local and regional level games.
Many of these girls shared that they got into sports to raise voices within family and community and bring positive changes in the society which is full of ill practices like Chhaupadi.
As per the report launched by United Nations, Nepal ranked 145th in the global Human Development Index in 2014, with a score of 0.54 indicating that this least developed country is yet to achieve improvement in life expectancy, knowledge and a decent standard of living.
Karnali falls at the bottom of this index as it has lagged behind in every above elements.
Nepal has also been categorized as a country with 'medium to low equality' in terms of human development disparity among men and women. Nepal stands at 98th in ranking of Gender Inequality Index.
Gender-based discrimination is high in the remotest region like Karnali due to illiteracy where most of the girls get married by the age of 15-18.
Saroj Shahi, Coordinator at Karnali Sports Club told Xinhua, "We are on the drive to engage more and more number of young girls into sports to help them fight illiteracy, discrimination and social stigmas. The craze is increasing gradually and we are hopeful that it will bring positive changes soon."
The club has also been sending girls in various regional and national level tournaments and marathons to make them more competent and professional. Recently, 19-year-old Sunmaya Budha won the title of 15 KM North Face Ultra Marathon held in the capital city.
Being born as the fifth daughter of her family with one younger sister, Sunmaya doesn't want to get married early as her four elder sisters. To escape the family pressure of marriage, she lives in a relatives' house in main town of Jumla, 6 hours walk distance from her village.
"My family is against my choice of getting into sports. Rather, they want me to settle down. But I want to continue my studies and and become a national player some day. I hope they would change their mind then," 12th grader Sunmaya told Xinhua near the pavilion known as Tudikhel.
Beside complex geography and status of politically marginalized region, poverty is the major factor for parents of this region to send daughters to in-laws early to escape the economic burden.
Nepal is the 85th most food insecure country in the world though majority of its population is dependent on agriculture, according to the global food security index 2015.
Jumla is recognized for rice production in the highest elevation of the world at nearly 3000 meter but at the same time, it has the highest food insecurity in the country. The local rice production sustains livelihood only for 4-6 months whereas the people have to depend upon external food assistance for rest of the year.
Amid such reality, parents find it easier to reduce the number of heads. There are various other social stigmas girls and women have to face in this conservative and under-privileged part of the Himalayan country.
The presence and programs of different national and international organizations along with participation of local clubs is impressive in leading to gradual infrastructural and social developments.
However, until and unless the new generations, especially young girls, are brought to the forefront through education, it will still be difficult for the Karnali region to rip off the rank as the least developed region of Nepal for next few years, or even decades.