It’s illegal, and a tradition that puts women at great risk, but despite this has been normalised, accepted and passed down through generations. In parts of Nepal, a practice called Chhaupadi dictates that women who are menstruating, and those who experience bleeding after childbirth, must live in makeshift huts because they are considered impure and therefore untouchable.
Exiled by their communities and families, the women are refused access to water and toilets and must eat food scraps, fed to them as though they were animals. They are exposed in every sense, vulnerable to rape, abduction and assault, and even death from asphyxiation caused by the fires they are forced to light in their tiny, inadequately ventilated huts.
In 2013, photojournalist Poulomi Basu travelled to Surkhet District in a remote region of Nepal to meet and photograph some of these women, assisted on the ground by the charity WaterAid. Appalled and outraged by what she saw, she vowed to return. “The first trip was so short and I was frustrated because I realised the scale of [the story] and wanted to spend more time there and see much more,” she says.
She returned to Nepal the following year, and again in 2016 after she won the Magnum Foundation Emergency Grant to continue the project. A Ritual of Exile: Blood Speaks won the 2017 FotoEvidence Book Award, and as a result will be published later this year; and it’s currently on show as an immersive VR installation at Format International Photography Festival in Derby.
Housed in a small, dark space inside the derelict 19th century Pearson’s Building, the multi-platform show in Derby includes two screen projections, photographs shown in LED-powered light boxes, a surround-soundscape and the VR film. The room deliberately evokes the oppressive environment inhabited by the women, and, putting on the VR headset, you are immediately transported to their world – first surrounded by Nepal’s expansive, mountainous landscape, then whisked inside a claustrophobic hut.
In the film, Basu tells the story of Chhaupadi through an intimate account of one woman’s experience – accompanied by her young son in her exile, we see her wash him in the river, in a quiet but moving exchange that somehow speaks volumes of her courage. The VR film is one of three Basu is producing, and she says it’s just a sneak preview of the completed work she’ll launch this year.
“You not only see these women’s struggles, but their silent protest and instinct to protect their children no matter what,” says Basu. “I wanted the audience to experience a sense of emotion stronger than watching a film or reading captions. This way you’re drawn in and [encounter] more surprises than you would in a 2D film. You might hear a sound and turn – something that really works in VR, a medium that has not been entirely explored.”