Saraswati Biswokarma sits in the dark, rearranging the threadbare cotton sheet and straw bed she is forced to sleep on before bringing her knees up to her chest with a shiver.
It is already mid-morning, but she has not been allowed out of the airless brick shed where she has spent every night for the past week.
The 13-year-old was effectively banished to the shed — barely big enough to stand or lie down in — where she must experience her first period alone in a traumatic ordeal.
“I’ve been here eight nights so I have one left,” she says with a nervous smile. “It’s not nice here, it’s scary and I felt very alone on the first night. I was so scared.”
Saraswati’s isolation is part of a centuries-old Hindu ritual known as chhaupadi that has been blamed for prolonged depression and even deaths in remote, impoverished western Nepal.
Under the practice, women are prohibited from participating in normal family activities during menstruation and after childbirth, and can have no contact with men of the household.
“I’m not allowed to touch any cattle or go inside our house. I have to stay in the shed and when my mother calls, I have to wait nearby the house with a plate so she can give me food,” Saraswati says.
She is also barred from consuming dairy products or meat or taking a bath. Even looking in the mirror is frowned upon.
The practice stems from the belief that when women have periods they are impure and will bring bad luck on a whole family if they stay in the house and will contaminate anything they touch.
In 2005, the government, in line with a Supreme Court order, enacted a law abolishing chhaupadi, but enforcement has been minimal or non-existent.
Saraswati’s shelter, known as a chhaupadi goth, looks like a miniature cow shed, with a dirt floor and no windows or running water.
In January last year, two women were found dead in chhaupadi goths in the remote district of Achham after temperatures dropped to -1oC. In another case, a 15-year-old died of diarrhoea contracted while sleeping in a shed.
Chandrakala Nepali, 17, is preparing for her fifth night in her goth.
Her parents went to Mumbai to find work two years ago, leaving her and four younger siblings to live with relatives in a house high up in the hills, an hour’s walk from Mangalsen, the main town in Achham.
“During the day I’m allowed out, but only to work in the jungle, collecting firewood,” she says, sweeping the dark, cold hut, which is barely big enough to lie down in.
“I’m not allowed to walk on the same road as the cattle and I’m not allowed to be with my family for seven days. To eat, I sit outside the house and they bring me food on a plate,” Chandrakala says.
“When I’m alone in the shed I feel scared. There are insects and I’m afraid of snakes coming in,” she added.
Chandrakala says that if she has daughters she would never force chhaupadi on them.
However, few women are prepared to challenge the status quo and many continue the ritual for fear of community disapproval or out of religious belief.
Pashupati Kuwar, 30, lives with her five children in Budhakot, a small hamlet high in the hills.
Her husband is away, working in the Indian city of Pune, while her in-laws died several years ago, but Kuwar still observes chhaupadi.
“I don’t touch any cattle for five days. I sleep on straw. Most of the day I go out, but I go back to the shed to sleep,” she said.