A conceptual image of ovulation Image Credit: Alamy

Poornima Javardhan, 25, felt dread and trepidation as she got ready to spend five days in a gaokor — a hut outside her village where girls and women are banished during menstruation.

“During the rainy season, it is all the more difficult to stay in a gaokor because water comes inside and sometimes the roof leaks,” says Javardhan, who lives in Sitatola, a village in central India’s Maharashtra state. Each month, custom dictates that she must stay in the thatched hut on the edge of a forest, sometimes on her own, or, if she’s lucky, with another woman.

Since the huts are considered public property, no one takes responsibility for their upkeep. Gaokors lack a kitchen as women who are menstruating are not allowed to cook; those staying inside rely on family to bring them food and other items. Women usually sleep on the floor with just a thick sheet for a mattress, which is folded and used as a cushion during the day.

Given the location of the huts, it is not uncommon for wild animals to make an appearance, and there have been reports of women dying from snakebites while staying in gaokors.

“We visited 223 gaokors in tribal areas and nearly 98 per cent lack even a proper bed, leave alone electricity and other basic amenities. Most of the gaokors have temporary bathrooms made with bamboo,” says Dr Dilip Barsagade, the founder of local NGO Society of People’s Action in Rural Services and Health (Sparsh), which recently brought the practice to the attention of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

The practice of banishing women and girls is most prevalent among the Gond and Madiya ethnic groups. The Gonds are the largest indigenous group in central India and hail from the states of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.

Girls miss school while they are in the huts. An estimated 23 per cent of girls in India drop out of school when they start menstruating. “Many times a menstruating girl is unable to take her exams because of this practice. It means that few girls from this region study beyond matriculation [high school],” says Barsagade.

“I don’t like staying in a gaokor ... there is nothing to do and I cannot play,” says Sangita Kumra, 14. “Luckily, so far I have never stayed alone, but I am scared that I might have to. My friend once had to stay alone, and the very mention of it would make her cry. My mother tells me that this is our custom and we have to do it.”

Satisheela Haridas, 23, from Sitatola, is resigned to her fate. “I feel extremely bad that for five days I cannot even touch the utensils of my own kitchen. But what can we do? We have to follow our tradition and customs,” she says. “Most of the time we just sit and talk [while in a gaokor] because there is nothing else to do.”

There are two gaokors in Sitatola, home to about 20 families. Although there have been incidents of harassment, women are generally left alone because they are considered impure while they have their periods. There have been moves to improve the conditions of the gaokors, but not to end the practice.

“We have brought gaokors closer to the village and are planning to put beds in them,” says Haridas Namdev Kumra, 25, a member of the village’s Gram Panchayat, a local self-governing body.

Elsewhere, local administrators have selected 100 gaokors to supply with basic amenities such as water, and cupboards with plates and cups.

In September, the NHRC instructed the state government to take steps to eradicate the practice of gaokor, which it described as a “serious violation of the human rights of women”.

“We have a school where we are teaching 350 girls and we try to educate them that menstruation is a natural process. We believe that everything is linked to education,” says Jagan Bhau, from Lok Biradari Prakalp, an organisation that runs social projects in Maharashtra.

Sparsh is also trying to address the problem by increasing women’s awareness of health and hygiene. Barsagade says the organisation has run 12 workshops in remote villages as well as working with local government-sponsored childcare centres; it also visits gaokors to speak to women about menstruation. “Because it is a sensitive topic, we try to educate them about health and hygiene without mentioning gaokor,” he says.

Social media campaigns have been launched to challenge the stigma and taboos around menstruation. In April, the Kachra Project launched the #periodforchange campaign, which encouraged discussion of the topic.

Recently, celebrities joined another campaign — #HappyToBleed, launched in response to a comment from the head of a Hindu temple, who said women would be permitted to enter the temple once there are machines to detect if they are “impure” or “pure”.

The hope is that the campaign will help to change attitudes. Arpita Bhagat, founder of the Kachra Project, says: “An extremely small section of modern Indian men are now open to talking about it [menstruation] in general conversation — otherwise, it remains a taboo and a stigma.”

— Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2016