New Delh: Last week, the Planning Commission drew flak for spending Rs 35 lakh to renovate two toilets at its Delhi headquarters. Had the money been spent on basic toilets for women, 50 of them could have been installed, as priced by Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, which works on sanitation and builds public pay-and-use toilets.
Maya Rajasthani knows the value of a simple toilet: A resident of Rajiv Gandhi Camp Street 7, a densely built slum cluster with paved roads on the outskirts of Mahavir Enclave, New Delhi, she and the other 2,025 inhabitants didn’t even have access to shared public toilets for nearly 25 years. Instead, they would relieve themselves in a small vacant park tucked away behind the slum, bordered by a large vegetable market. It was humiliating for everyone, she said, but it was the worst for the women. “Men from the market used to watch us as we relieved ourselves. They would jeer and throw rocks at us,” the mid-30s, mother of four recalled, face creased into a fierce frown as she smooths the folds of a sapphire blue sari. After several girls from the community were raped on their way to the area, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She rallied her community, collecting signatures and met monthly with local politicians. It took more than two years, but they eventually managed to secure funding for 22 toilets—12 for women, and 10 for men. “We are very relieved that we do not need to worry for our young daughters and daughters-in-law anymore,” she says.
Basic facilities: A toilet at Mahavir Enclave, New Delhi. (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
Women in India face immense problems due to the lacking public toilet facilities, but some have taken matters into their own hands and are trying to flush out the trouble
Rajasthani is one of the lucky few. For roughly half of India’s 1.2 billion people, toilets are still something of a luxury. Recent census findings show that 46.9% of households in India have a personal latrine, while 53.2% own cellphones. Even the nation’s Capital is not exempt from toilet troubles: A 2009 report by the Centre for Civil Society found that Delhi only has 132 public toilets for women (men had 1,534). In Mumbai, there are 10,300 pay-as-use toilets for a population of around 12.5 million (2011 provisional census data)—around one toilet per 10,769 people.
This is bad news for everyone—but it’s particularly bad for urban women, for whom lack of a private toilet can mean the difference between safety and sexual assault. A 2010 report on Delhi slums by non-governmental organization (NGO) Sanitation and Hygiene Applied Research for Equity found that of 42 women in three slums surveyed, 66% suffered verbal abuse, 46% were stalked and 30% have been physically assaulted while going to the public toilet. “There’s a direct link to women’s increased vulnerability to violence,” says Janet Geddes, who is working on a report on sanitation and hygiene for Dasra, an NGO based in Mumbai. “That’s because either the facilities don’t exist, and women have to go in the open to defecate, or they are quite far off, so women have to walk a long distance to get to a facility.”
A toilet can determine whether a girl will become educated: Girls attending schools without gendered toilets are far more likely to drop out than those with working facilities. The 2011 Annual Status of Education Report found that lack of access to toilets causes girls aged 12-18 to miss around five days of school per month, or around 50 school days per year—and almost 23% of girls drop out of school once they start menstruating.
Even educated women are affected by a city’s lack of facilities. Jyoti Chopra, who has a masters degree in social work, quit a job with an NGO focusing on women’s empowerment after only six months because the building lacked gendered toilet facilities. “Men and women could both walk in—and there was only a short wall separating the door from the toilet. It was very embarrassing,” she says. “I know other women who have had the same problem.”
Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, recalls a conversation with a high-ranking female Indian Administrative Service officer from Madhya Pradesh, who said she regularly skipped breakfast and avoided liquids until late in the day, in order to avoid having to go to the bathroom when out in the field. And women in rural India often have to wait until dawn or night to sneak out to the fields to relieve themselves, risking molestation, and scorpion and snake bites. “This is an issue that affects everyone—regardless of class,” he says.
Indian women are not alone in their toilet troubles. Up until 1993, female senators in the US had to compete with tourists to use public toilets because there were no women’s restrooms, according to a 2010 article in The Economist. And in 1994, a Texan firm fired dozens of women rather than foot the bill for women’s toilets, the same article notes. Earlier this year in Guangzhou, China, a group of women activists launched a movement for “potty parity”. Naming the protest operation “Occupy Men’s Toilets”, they commandeered men’s toilet stalls at a busy public restroom for about an hour, blocking men’s access to restrooms to allow women use of both men’s and women’s toilets.
Today, Indian women, too, are taking up the toilet revolution. Inspired by their Chinese sisters, Nagpur-based NGO Sahyog Trust organized a group of women to conduct an “Occupy Men’s Restrooms” movement of their own on Women’s Day on 8 March. And for the past year in Mumbai, a group of 40 NGOs have been conducting a “Right to Pee” campaign in protest against women being required to pay to use public restrooms, while men could relieve themselves for free. In less than 10 months, they have managed to secure more than 50,000 signatures of men and women. “In Mumbai, there are so many women who leave their houses and go outside for work,” says Minu Gandhi, field coordinator for Apnalaya, one of the participating NGOs. “They suffer serious health problems because there is no toilet—urinary tract infections, kidney stones and other diseases. So, we raised this issue and we are fighting for it.”
Two years after the Haryana government launched a “No Toilet No Bride” campaign, the number of women refusing to live with new husbands until a toilet is built appear to be on the rise across the country. Priyanka is one such woman. A 19-year-old from Madhya Pradesh, she was married in 2007 to a man from Vishnupur Khurd, and moved into his home this April after the gauna ceremony only to learn his family had no private toilet. “My mother-in-law told me that there is no toilet in the house, and I would have to go outside near the fields,” she says. “It was very embarrassing since there were always people around.” She returned to her parents’ home after only a few days, telling her husband’s family she would return only after a toilet is constructed. Sulabh International has pledged to give her Rs 2 lakh as reward for her decision, and has promised to build a toilet at her in-laws’ house so she can return.
But there are signs of change. Earlier this year, the Kerala State Women’s Development Corp. Ltd (KSWDC) announced a pilot programme that would build 35 electronic self-cleaning “she-toilets” in the city of Thiruvananthapuram, the southern state’s capital. The toilets, which cost approximately Rs 4 lakh each, are mobile and come fully equipped with baby changing stations, and sanitary napkin vending machines and incinerators. If the project is successful, KSWDC aims to expand it to more than 200 locations across the state. And earlier this week, Nationalist Congress Party chief and Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar took on the case, asking the Maharashtra government to allot Rs 100 crore for constructing women’s toilets in villages, state transport bus stands and public spaces.
British urban planner Clara Greed once said: “You can judge the true position of women in a nation by the state of its toilets and the length of its queues.” By this standard, India’s women do not seem to rank very high.