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Toilets for women: mirrors of imbalance

June 23, 2013

Loo Woes

On the road, in a new place

Long ago in Indian Express, I came across the article attached here: Rama Bijaipurkar talks about her own experience with provision of  facilities and prevalent attitudes as well as platitudes around the issue of toilets. When travelling or in a new place, women, ‘even’ successful ones are accustomed to

A. Not finding a washroom,

B. Not finding one with a door that closes/ or, very often, finding a toilet where the door is locked,

C. Not having any water, running or otherwise in it, and

D. It being unusable because of any reasons, including blockage, lack of care, filth (sometimes a measure of desperation by previous users).

Most have accepted their fate to such a degree that they don’t even expect dry floors or a nail to hang the purse (which, invariably, contains the stuff of half the family) let alone sanitary napkin disposal bins, mirrors, or diaper changing stations… They are happy if the light is working, and positively elated if there is a wash-basin in working condition outside the loo. All women admit this scenario adds to their stress and to their reluctance to travel or go to new places.

Industry, hospitals, universities, libraries, museums, bus stops

Places of work, recreation, or in between: public buildings, gardens, community halls, railway stations, even malls… Everywhere the story is same: Toilets are either broken, or are in a royal mess. In some buildings, e.g. small industries, shops, small office spaces, security outposts, or crematoria, designers (of both genders) don’t even think about women’s lavatories. True, there are organisations where women are at high positions now – they are officials, and cops, and politicians. So we see the loo is locked, with a sign saying ‘For officers only’. Visitors and all other women, don’t make it our problem – we are only locking it so that it remains clean – say the peeps in charge.

Poor women and rural women have it even worse. In primary schools, especially in remote areas, teachers keep the toilets locked and students are too shy to ask for keys in front of the class. So they go home, and the rest of their day is wasted as far as education is concerned.

What about homes?

Anyone working with slums would reiterate, as would anyone familiar with rural situation, that toilets are important.

In cities, places without possibilities for open defecation except when dark, many women hold their urges till late night, or wake up really early to take care of this business.  Everyone knows of a story where a woman was abused because she was in an unsafe place at an unsafe time and in a vulnerable situation. In villages, cases of molestation of young women and even children because of the same reason are so rampant that Rajasthan government even has a promotional campaign linking women’s safety and a toilet at home: “Bahu Betiyan Bahar na Jayen, Ghar main Shouchalay Banvayen” loosely translated as: Women of your household will not need to venture out, if only you make a toilet at home.

One answer is a pay and use facility available at some places. A considerable number of poor women are ready to sacrifice their hard earned 2/ 5 rupees to buy something for their children, and not on using such a facility.

But, there is a toilet at home!

In the family, if government has helped built a small toilet, the water is very often a problem. And where there is scant resource, the inherent power equation comes into play. The men of the house have access to water first, then the children, and then the aged… So the woman, who is more often than not fetching water, fighting, worrying about and storing it, has the last right to it. And many are harsh on themselves because of this, and try to use the toilet only once a day.

Is this not curtailing a simple, basic freedom?

How often does the toilet figure as a priority when a house is being designed, expanded or renovated?

What about those days?

Most folks are uncomfortable discussing this issue. Importantly, most decision makers are: There is no sure way of knowing when a girl’s friends, as they are often referred to, would arrive, right? And at such times access to a toilet becomes of crucial importance to a woman’s comfort, dignity and hygiene. At minimum 10 Rs. a piece, sanitary napkins are beyond the financial priority of many a women. To reuse pieces of cloth, a method adopted for many generations now, one needs water, and place to dry them once washed. At this point in the discussion, most are looking away, or have zoned out.

So what is the problem, again?

An oft repeated question is: What is SO wrong in this?

It’s only a little inconvenience! The country doesn’t have enough to feed it’s people and you want to spend money on fancy stuff? Even men have to deal with stinky, horrific loos, and abuse as a result of the way public/ publicly accessible toilets are. And women can ‘naturally’ hold it for up to 8 hours where men are helpless! Aren’t old people suffering too?

Answer: Everything. Everything is wrong in not giving a basic need a priority.

This is not about imaginary glass ceiling, wages, education, opportunities or involvement in decision making, which are all very important. But about basic things like freedom, safety, comfort, and choice to move at will. And enjoy the day. Can planners and decision makers talk about choice when so many citizens are trying to fly with tied feet? Babies and children, our future, are affected by this abyss. And so is our present, because HALF of us are not free.

12BGPUBLICEYE_1360948f_The Hindu

For more… There are ample stories about this, waiting to be read and heard:

Women face disease & danger

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