Women suffer much more than men from the pathetic state of our public toilets. How long before they raise a stink, asks Aastha Atray Banan
FOR KHAN Fahreen Sajid, a resident of the Behram Nagar slum in Mumbai’s Bandra East, the decision of who to marry is going to be the most practical one of her life. All she wants is a toilet — a step up from the slum’s community loo. “I need a house that has an attached bathroom,” she told her father, a zari maker, matter-of-factly.
In Haryana, this realisation dawned early. In 2005, the government started the initiative ‘No Toilet, No Bride’. Slogans of “If you don’t have a proper lavatory in your house, don’t even think about marrying my daughter” were plastered across villages. About 1.4 million lavatories have been built in the state since 2005 and 798 village panchayats have already received nearly Rs 11.29 crore as reward for having a toilet in each household.
When James Brown said, “It’s a man’s world”, he was probably thinking of the long queue outside a women’s loo. Out of Delhi’s 3,192 public urinals, only 132 were for women, according to a Delhi High Court inspection in 2007 and a Centre for Civil Society paper. In Mumbai, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation officer on special duty Anand Jagtap told TEHELKA that the government makes an equal number of toilets for men and women, with the aim of providing one toilet seat for every 50 people.
But Jagtap’s arithmetic is misleading. Even when the number of toilets are same, male ones have more units since they’re equipped with additional standing- style urinals. This is doubly debilitating when you consider that men and women use toilets differently, and, according to a 1988 Virginia Tech study, women need to spend twice as long in the loo as men.
The Indian man just zips down, faces the next wall and relieves himself. In doing so, he faces no shame or embarrassment — whereas women feel furtive even about using a public loo. Smrithi Rao, a 24-year-old Bengaluru stylist explains, “We are conditioned by birth to feel shame. And I don’t want men to look at me when I am using a loo.”
Kaveri Nag, a retail manager in Delhi, says, “I’m scared I’m going to catch an infection, because most toilets are dirty.I carry toilet paper and cover the seats with lots of it.” She drives from Delhi to Jaipur every week, and is shocked that there is not even one toilet on the threehour long stretch: “Men can just get off and go. What do we do?”
In the Kutch, women are forced to defecate in a hole in their rooms after childbirth as walking to a distant field demarcated for defecation is out of the question, reveals Ila Pathak, a prominent social activist who works for the Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group. Says Pathak, “Most women in rural areas don’t use sanitary napkins, so during the time they are menstruating they stay at home and follow the same routine. Travelling to places almost an hour away demarcated as a women’s loo can also cause unusual problems. If the woman of the house takes a long time coming back from these areas, family members suspect her of having an affair and beat them up!”
And in the Northeast, says Charishma, a PhD student in Shillong: “You can spot men all over the hills and in the main town parking themselves on the side of the roads. But when we go down to the main marketplace every Sunday, we keep in mind that we shouldn’t consume too much liquids, or else we might have to use the dirty loos. We have got used to holding it forever.”
FILMMAKER PAROMITA Vohra’s documentary Q2P asks the all-important question: Who are India’s super cities being built for if there are not even basic facilities for women? Paromita says with a dry smile, “A woman’s body is never seen biologically, only sexually, and so when a woman sees a man watching her as she goes to the loo, she knows he’ll be thinking of her naked body. The fact that women can’t pee where they want and when they want is a proof of their oppression — even in the so-called metros.”
India’s urban women — both rich and poor, by the way — face many problems around their toilet routines, but the dilemma of preserving their dignity is often in the forefront. Take the case of Rukhsana Anwar Sheikh, 35, who lives in a Mumbai slum, and has to cross over to a neighbouring slum every time she needs to visit a decent loo. “I only go to the loo before dark as I don’t want to leave my house after a decent hour. And if my calculations go wrong, I just hold it. Women are supposed to be resilient,” she cracks a weary yet resigned smile.
Some women, though, are ready to challenge society’s farcical attitude. Bharti, Guddi and Sunita — housemaids in Delhi’s Rohini neighbourhood — have decided to shed their inhibitions for the sake of their health. The owners of houses where they work don’t allow them to use the bathrooms, so they hit back by squatting on the main road whenever they feel the need to go, even if they are stared at. “We gave up sharam long time back. If we fall ill, what will happen to our children? It’s not a choice we can afford to make,” says the trio of Rajasthani banjara women.
‘I only go to the loo before dark and if my calculations go wrong, I just hold it. We’re supposed to be resilient,’ says Anwar Sheikh with a resigned smile
Dr Anita Patil-Deshmukh, executive director of Pukar India, agrees that there are health risks to holding back. “They suffer from constipation and piles. Women who hold it in for long periods also suffer from recurrent UTI (urinary tract infection) and hence give birth to premature or small babies. It’s one of the silent killers for women all over India.” A study conducted by think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in 2010, on sanitation facilities at Mumbai’s 106 suburban railway stations, revealed that the ratio of women to men getting UTI was 6:1.
Journalist Brinda Majithia, 25, commutes 90 minutes from far-off Mumbai suburb Kandivali to Lower Parel every day and never uses the railway station toilets. “I have gone eight hours at a stretch without using a bathroom. The only way you can think of using a station loo is if you don’t touch anything.” At her office, too, there is water shortage. “Last month, we were actually forced to go to a nearby mall because our office made no provision for water shortage in the city,” she says. “Men didn’t suffer — they were still able to use the office urinals.”
It is well known that the right to education is hampered by lack of loos in schools. Half of India’s government-run schools don’t have separate toilets for males and females, forcing young women to use unisex facilities or nothing at all. Bina Lashkari of the NGO Doorstep Schools, which works with Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation schools all over Mumbai, says, “Most girls give up coming to school once they hit puberty, as they are wary of using the dirty unisex toilet, especially when they are menstruating.” In Bengaluru, in a school which had no loo, girls would go in twos to the corner of the compound. One girl would shelter the girl peeing by standing in front of her with her skirt spread out! No wonder, a Ministry of Health and Family Welfare health survey from 2006 found that 22 percent of girls complete 10 or more years of schooling compared to 35 percent of boys.
British urban design planner Clara Greed once said that you can judge a nation by its toilets and assess the true position of women in society by looking at its toilet queues. In India, all we can do is hope, and wait with our legs crossed as tight as possible.