Are there Toilets Adequate for Women?

Everyone produces shit and other bodily waste, from pauper to prime minister to pope. Toilet training is a key moment in the socialisation of a human being. Shit, in that sense, is fundamental to society. It is the great leveller. But it is also the great divide.


The flush toilet is widely lauded as one of our greatest civilisational achievements. It has remarkably reduced mortality rates wherever it has travelled, even more than antibiotics. Its rightful place in history is alongside the scientific method, the printing press, electricity and internet. However, the flush toilet inside the home is still a luxury in most parts of the world and access to a flush toilet outside home is rarer still.


Lack of access to toilets is the gravest of injustices. This injustice is experienced predominantly. But economic class is not the only axis along which this injustice revolves. It also revolves along gender, age, caste and physical ability. In this post, let us talk about “potty parity” between the sexes. In the public discourse around equality of the sexes, most of the attention is paid to quotas and reservations, and that gets everyone’s goat. But as a society we are silent when it comes to parity in opportunities to discharge bodily waste. This is the case even though our Honourable Prime Minister has accorded toilets higher priority than temples.


Potty parity between sexes is the idea that women and men should have proportionate access to toilets, which they do not already. This problem is not peculiar to the “developing world”, but there are social norms and attitudes towards women’s bodies here that severely aggravate the impacts of disparity. Let us look at the striking disparities in the public space of Hyderabad.


  Ladies Toilet

Ladies Toilet


Numbers: Our survey of public toilets in Hyderabad reveals that the ratio of toilet seats for men to toilet seats for women is 2.33, i.e. for every 100 toilets for women, there are 233 for men. As a ratio it might seem 'normal'. But there are only 186 toilets in the city. On top of this, men have urinals. There are anywhere from 1 to 6 urinals for men in any given toilet, and they range from being free to 2 rupees for use. Women pay anywhere between 3 to 10 rupees to use a toilet.


Toilet facilities for men are not great. But then, in practice, men can pee practically anywhere (more on that in the next post). Also, the toilet design suits men fine, they walk in, urinate (spill on the floor in the worst case, wash their hands in the best case), drop a coin at the attendant’s table, and walk out. Toilet design for women, in comparison, has many constraints.


Of course these factors are subjective and women might compromise depending on their situation, but here are some of the design features we have found to put women off public toilets.


  The Way to the Ladies Toilet

The Way to the Ladies Toilet


Cost: Men can pee on walls and into gutters. Men have free urinals. Men have urinals(!), in the first place, which cost a rupee or two at most. Women have dirty latrines that can cost up to 10 rupees, and a greater proneness to urinary tract infections. For poorer women, a large user-group of public toilets, this is unaffordable. Think of the latest figures of the poverty line, roughly Rs.47 a day, and remember that roughly 26.4% of urban India is below it and a large proportion are always perilously close to it. Why aren’t there free urinals for women? It seems the fact that an effective women’s urinal was never invented, is forcing women to pay to pee. Besides, in a toilet where there is one toilet seat for women, which is most of the toilets in Hyderabad, the no.2s and the no.1s will need to queue up. This is the sorry reality that has been challenged vigorously by the Right to Pee Campaign in Mumbai.


No water. No lota. No washbasin.

No water. No lota. No washbasin.


Hygiene: In terms of hygiene, there is the obvious problem of cleanliness in the latrine itself. It is a fact that women are more prone to urinary tract infections and it is well established that dirty latrines are a major cause. But besides that, in many toilets, there is no running water. In some, there is running water, but no lotas or buckets. Then there is the state of the lotas or buckets themselves. But besides these, there are two other major issues: washbasins and dustbins. In many of the toilets, the entrance to the women’s toilet is separate, which might be a good thing in terms of privacy, but shuts women off from the washbasin, which is usually located near the urinal in the men’s booth. In many toilets, there is no sign of a dustbin. For women, who have to dispose sanitary napkins, pads or tampons, the only option is flushing, which in turn could cause clogging.


Obstacle Course

Obstacle Course.


Privacy: Picture this; there’s one latrine for women. It’s situated behind the male attendant’s table. The attendants are all male. The entrance to many of these toilets face a main road. Here we are already talking about social attitudes, but it is true that these factors deter women. So, first there’s disparity in the number of toilets and then there’s bad design, or at least design that is insensitive to women’s needs and sensibilities. In this context, demands for potty parity and the right to pee seem essential.


But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The problems you can throw money at and solve, as they say. Build more toilets, improve designs and provide washbasins and dustbins. But the problem runs deeper. Read the next post to unpack the problem further.

Nov 17, 2015