My first lesson arrives as soon as I enter the marble-floored toilet of the five-star hotel, accompanied by the utterly gorgeous Salma Khan. Six feet tall, sari tied low and lips painted an exaggerated maroon, Salma will make heads turn anywhere. But the attendant, who’s busy applying her eyeliner in the mirror, has already sized her up.
“Not on the floor,” she yells in Hindi at Salma. “You have to sit on the toilet. Don’t make a mess. Understood?”
Salma does not say a word as she enters the stall, and to my eternal shame, I too remain silent.
Of all the many layers of discrimination that we encounter daily, perhaps the most invisible is the one faced by transgender people. It seems appropriate, if somewhat ironic, that I am meeting Salma at a conference organized by the Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) in Mumbai in partnership with Global Citizen India and the Swachh Bharat Mission. I don’t have to think twice about walking into the ladies. But for people like Salma, deciding which door to enter can become a quandary. And regardless of which one she opens, Salma knows she is likely to face abuse, stigma or revulsion (and sometimes all three).
The day-long conference in Mumbai is a culmination of one year of the WSSCC’s consultation in eight countries in South Asia. In 2015, the council asked marginalized groups—women, adolescent girls, people with disability, the elderly, sanitation workers, transgenders like Salma—a simple question: Were their sanitation needs being met? The answer was an equally simple no.
In the first year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission in 2014, more than 11.5 million toilets were constructed in rural areas. By November this year, three states, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and, now, Kerala, became open-defecation free.
Despite these gains, the task remains daunting. An estimated 44% of our 1.27 billion citizens still defecate in the open. According to Unicef and the World Health Organization, progress among the poorest has been slower. “What you need is a sea change in thinking. You need a collective change in behaviour,” Chris Williams, executive director, WSSCC, said at a press conference.
What this means in real terms is that men and children prefer open spaces even when a toilet is available, found the WSSCC report, ‘Leave No One Behind’. Women and girls, on the other hand, find that a toilet at home provides dignity, privacy and safety. But because they have little say in decision-making, their needs are often ignored.
Yet, as we build toilets through the length and breadth of India, run programmes to effect mindset change, and set and celebrate targets met, crucial questions of equity and inclusion in sanitation must be addressed.
Consider the marginalized groups in terms of numbers. India has an estimated population of 490,000 transgenders, four million ragpickers, 26 million people with disability, 100 million elderly and 459 million women who menstruate. When we build toilets, do we think about the special needs of these groups?
Do we consider, for instance, how an elderly person or a person with disability is expected to squat without handrails? Do we ask if there are disposal facilities available to menstruating woman? Are sanitation workers provided with adequate safety gear and access to hand-washing facilities? Do ragpickers and transgenders have equal and unstigmatized entry to toilets?
Sadly, many who were interviewed told WSSCC that they were being asked about their needs for the first time.
But here’s what they had to say.
“Some days, I do not bathe because I do not want to carry a heavy bucket,” says Yaadamma, an elderly woman from Warangal, Telangana.
“We go in a group of three or four to a very far-off pond for bathing and cleaning clothes. When one person is busy bathing, others keep watch,” says Mandakini Boi, a 16-year-old student from Angul, Odisha.
“Toilets in public places are dirty and small,” says Ishika, a student of Umang Special School in Bhopal. “And getting inside with a wheelchair is almost impossible.”
“We sweep, clean drains and pick up garbage and dead animals. We don’t get a mask, gloves or shoes to protect ourselves,” says Shankar Mukhi from Jharkhand.
And Salma? She just shrugs her shoulders. Being yelled at is no big deal. “I like this bathroom,” she smiles. “But I don’t like the idea of using toilet paper. It’s just not clean.”
Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint.
Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare