When considering the practice of banishment, images reminiscent of medieval times are conjured, where an offender is ostracised from society as punishment and a deterrent to anyone wishing to follow in such tainted footsteps.
However, with time’s progression, the impracticability and inhumanity of the practice have been brought to the fore, leading to its widespread unpopularity. It is, therefore, anachronistic, that in the 21st century, banishment practices persist, with its primary target — the woman.
To be a victim of this fate is by pure happenstance, as the women subjected to such vile treatment are punished for circumstances entirely beyond their control, whether it be bodily exigencies or the harrowing loss of a spouse, their fates are decidedly, outside of their reach.
For women in Nepal, the reception of the signs of an imminent period must be with great trepidation, as they are reminded that, for a minimum of five days, they must be separated from their families in observance of Chhaupadi, an ancient practice that tags menstruating women impure, and prohibits their presence at home, proximity to men, foodstuff, plants and cattle, as their impurity is feared to be capable of angering the gods and bringing ill luck to their communities.
While menstruating, the woman is banished to a ramshackle hut, whose bare facilities restrict her sleeping arrangement to the floor, bodily relief to a neighbouring river and diet to rice, wheat and salt for fear of contaminating other foodstuff.
Her sojourn at the hut is replete with difficulties, as its poor ventilation, sanitation and setting expose her to unfavourable elements, with instances of pneumonia, diarrhoea and animal attacks being commonplace with the women observing Chhaupadi. In more extreme cases, death arises, as seen in the tragic case of Tulasi Sahti, 19, of the Western district of Dailekh who, while in her hut, suffered 2 snake bites which led to her eventual death. Another tragic case is Roshani Tiruwa, 15 of Gajra, who lost her life to smoke inhalation in her poorly ventilated hut.
In India, the plight of the widow is twofold, as she not only has to deal with the loss of her spouse, but also her life as she knows it. Widows are seen as vessels of bad luck to be avoided, so much so, that even their shadows are deemed unlucky. She is termed a witch, husband eater and prostitute, and is required to dress and look the part of her station- garbed in white, sporting a shaved head with jewellery forgone; her diet is also restricted, stipulating the avoidance of heating foods, which are believed to spur sexual arousal. It is also routine for a widow to be shunned by her parents, in-laws and even children, leaving her strictly alone to fend for herself.
Death is believed a better fate than widowhood, so much so that the practice of Sati was an established custom, with wives throwing themselves on their deceased husband’s pyres or being buried alive with their corpses, signifying the worthlessness of the widow following the death of her husband. Though outlawed, it is telling of the low value placed on the life of a woman following her husband’s death.
To survive, the Indian widow, who is most times illiterate and unskilled, has to flee to Vrindavan, popularly known as ‘City of Widows’, which boasts about 10 000 widows, here, lucky widows find shelter in shared cramped structures, which are over centuries old. Those able to sing, do so for hours at a time in the temples or Ashrams in exchange for a meagre amount of money and food while those unable to sing, beg for alms on the streets with some younger widows being sold into prostitution. Still, this life is regarded as one of dignity, in comparison to the life sure to have befallen them, had they remained in their previous homes.
The women of Northern Ghana lead truly precarious lives, as any word or suspicion of their involvement in the death or illness of another or even the mere appearance in another’s dream could lead to their embarrassing and public banishment without trial or even personal property, to a witch camp, 6 of which are in existence in Ghana.
Easy targets are widows, who, according to an ActionAid Report, make up about 70% of the inhabitants of the witch camps. They are mostly accused of witchcraft by their in-laws who, viewing them worthless, find them unworthy to inherit the property of their husbands, thus laying up false accusations for unimpeded access to the property. Other targets are eccentric women, whose derailment from societal norms can only be attributable to witchcraft.
The camps are made up of ramshackle huts with thatched roofs and have a dismal supply of food and water, leading many of the women to walk several miles in search of water. Educational and health facilities are merely a laughable dream and where provided, are out of the financial capabilities of the widows.
It is however shocking that the women that make it to the camps are viewed as lucky, as more unfortunate women accused of witchcraft are subjected to worse, more permanent fates, with many being beaten or burnt to death.
With increased public outrage at the plight of these women, efforts have been put in place to alleviate their suffering. The observance of Chhaupadi has been outlawed and family members found enforcing it face a penalty and jail time. The widows of Nepal are allowed to participate in previously prohibited customs and the government has mandated their family members take care of them; in addition, the witch camps of Ghana might soon be a thing of the past, with the order for their destruction by the Government of Ghana.
These efforts, though laudable, do not go to the root of the issue as the women still carry the stigma that warranted their ostracising. Instead, a lasting solution may lie in sensitisation programs which focus on and resound the continued humanity of these women in their communities, regardless of the dictates of custom.