More public toilets key to remove gender disparity
While the total number of public toilets is a concern, the lack of such facilities for women is a much bigger concern. The gender dimension of the issue is very poignant.
Recently I came across a very interesting campaign called the Right to Pee. This was launched in Mumbai by several groups for clean, safe and free public toilets for women. At first, it seemed strange to pose a bodily function within the context of rights. But reflecting further, I realised that in our country, something even as basic as this needs to be posited as a right because not only are so many people denied it, but it can have many negative implications on people’s lives.
To begin with, we know that there are many households in rural and urban India that do not have toilets. But today, I want to focus on public and community toilets in cities which are available for all (though sometimes at a cost). All our cities do not have enough public toilets.
While the total number of public toilets is a concern, the lack of such facilities for women is a much bigger concern.
In Delhi, for example, at present there are more than 4,000 public toilets. But there are only 300 women public toilets (and not all are functional in 10 out of the 12 zones of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi).
In Mumbai, there are just 381 public toilets for women. If you put that in relation to the population of women in the city, there is one public toilet for about 15,000 women.
This is in stark contrast to the 6,568 toilets and 2,849 urinals for men in the city.
While there may be more public toilets for men, the truth is also that many of them are poorly maintained and some of them barely usable. The lack of proper maintenance and care of public amenities is a problem that all our cities face.
Closer home in Gurugram, almost 60 of the 99 public toilets set up here are unusable due to lack of continuous water supply. In 2015, the Swachh Survekshan ranked Gurugram 466 of 476 cities on this parameter.
The gender dimension of the issue is very poignant. There are studies which demonstrate that women and girls avoid drinking water, and even eating through the day, in order to avoid having to use a toilet.
This can have severe health consequences for them. Further, girls have shared that they don’t go to school during their periods where toilets do not exist or are unusable. A recent study found a troubling correlation between pregnant mothers who had no toilet facilities and low birth weight.
Beyond this, the lack of toilets can also have an impact on women’s work opportunities. For example, women who want to be bus drivers are often unable to because many of the bus depots across the country do not have toilets for women. Construction sites are also abysmal in this aspect, though in more recent times, temporary toilets are being put up for workers.
A third dimension of this is the danger and violence girls and women face. There have been several cases where women have been sexually assaulted when they used some desolate spot for relieving themselves in the absence of toilets. Women have shared that they try to go out in a group for open defecation out of fear.
Gender discrimination in this matter has one more aspect which is often overlooked. Transgender people are often unable to use either male or female toilets. There have been instances where they have been harassed in men’s toilets and chased away in women’s toilets, leaving them very vulnerable.
There is no doubt that this is a pressing issue. Building public and community toilets has been one element of the Swachh Bharat, there is still a lot to be done. While the physical infrastructure and maintenance are essential, social aspects also need to be dealt with so that the elements of discrimination along lines of gender get addressed.
(The author, co-founder and CEO of Safetipin, works on issues of women’s safety and rights in cities.)