We cannot live without water. It is essential for drinking, cooking, washing, cleaning, providing healthcare, growing crops and rearing animals. People settle near water sources and communities flourish around them. Yet water is unequally distributed and many people globally lack sufficient access to water to meet their basic needs.

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 25% of its 30 million people living below the poverty line. But many would not consider Nepal to have a water problem. It is a landlocked country, characterised by the snowy peaks of the Himalaya and you might assume that it has fresh water from glacial melt in abundance.

However, in the rural areas of Nepal, many children, usually girls, walk one or two hours a day over remote hilly terrain to get to a small mountain stream to collect water. Those in the more densely populated areas in the valleys, may have larger rivers nearby but these water sources are under threat from rapid urbanisation and pollution. Urban developments are sealing up the ground, preventing rainfall from recharging underground aquifers, and increasing the occurrence of floods. Large populations without sewerage and waste disposal systems pollute water sources, making them unsafe for drinking or bathing and standing water becomes a breeding ground for the insect vectors of infectious disease, which are on the rise in Nepal.

A MeJARa team visit to Nepal in December 2023 highlighted how water scarcity is a gendered issue disproportionately affecting women and girls. In Nepal, due to its scarcity, clean water is a precious resource that must be protected so many customs have been adopted to avoid pollution of water sources, including household containers. For example, adolescent girls told us that when they are menstruating, they are not allowed to touch the water supply of the house for fear that they would pollute it. In the richer houses there would be a separate tap for menstruating women to use. In the poorer households, they have to use a different bucket of water. 

In addition to restrictions on touching water supplies, menstruating girls have to leave the house and stay in a chhau goth or menstrual hut for the duration of their bleeding. They have to cook their own food and wash their own clothes, away from the family home, often in places separate to others in the community. Girls told us that they use old cloths to absorb their menstrual blood, but the cloths should not be seen by others, so, after washing, they hide them under other clothes to dry. Some reportedly leave them in the chhau goth overnight, where they cannot be seen but cannot dry properly. This means that they have to wear them damp the next day which is uncomfortable.

Access to clean water and adequate sanitation is a human right that is threatened by the impact of human activities and the effects of the climate crisis. While there is an urgent need to protect and conserve water, it must not be at the detriment of women and girls who have additional water, sanitation and hygiene requirements while menstruating. MeJARa aims to improve the menstrual experiences of adolescent girls by improving our understanding of the causes and consequences of different menstrual practices in Nepal, including restrictions on accessing water. Achieving menstrual justice requires much more than water, sanitation and hygiene, yet it is these fundamental basics that are essential for girls to manage their menstruation comfortably and hygienically. As we seek to gain a broader understanding of menstruation in Nepal, World Water Day serves as an important reminder of the physical needs of adolescent girls and the challenges they face to meet them.

Written by:

Josephine Mcallister