Bathing spaces for women - crucial for WASH!

A temperory bathing space with no water and privacy in a fishing village in Tamil Nadu (Image Source: India Water Portal)
A temperory bathing space with no water and privacy in a fishing village in Tamil Nadu (Image Source: India Water Portal)

While it is known that women and girls experience considerable challenges than men and boys in accessing water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) resources, there is minimal discussion on bathing spaces for women while the focus continues to be on toilet construction.

Lack of bathing spaces can make women vulnerable to a number of health problems besides challenging their safety, dignity and privacy. However, there are very few interventions that focus on building bathing spaces for women in rural areas, informs this paper titled 'Impacts of a bathing space on the lives of women in rural India' published in The Journal of Indian and Asian Studies.

A number of studies over the last two decades have shed light on the high prevalence of gynaecological problems among women in rural India. Good personal hygiene is essential for preventing vaginal infections. However, very few studies have attempted to show this connection between absence of private bathing spaces and the high prevalence of gynaecological morbidities among rural women in India.

Gynaecological morbidities include a range of conditions such as  lower and upper reproductive tract infections with symptoms like persistent white or colored vaginal discharge; foul-smelling discharge along with itching and irritation and lower abdominal pain. Back pain, abnormal discharge, and irregularity in menstrual flow can be symptoms of vaginal infections caused by the entry of dirt and bacteria. Poor menstrual hygiene and personal hygiene practices are often associated with high prevalence of these gynaecological morbidities among women.

The paper discusses the findings of a study that aimed to understand the impact of bathing spaces on women’s daily lives from rural villages in Betul district of Madhya Pradesh and Karagpur I block of Pashchim Medinipur district of West Bengal. The villages had recently gained access to an enclosed bathing space following intervention by two private agencies.

The study found that:

Access to bathing facilities improved after the intervention

Majority of the women (73 percent) had access to a bathing facility with full walls and a roof after the intervention while the others had a bathing space with half walls or no roof over the bathing space. Majority (63 percent ) of the women had piped water in the bathing room. The women who did not have a piped water supply facility had a hand pump or a well within a 2 km radius, and could regularly bathe in the bathing facility.

Thirty five percent of the women had access to bathing spaces where grey water was let out in the household’s kitchen garden. Almost half of the women used a bathing facility connected to a sewage line, while in few cases the grey water was directed to a sewage pit or out in the open.

The use of bathing spaces was very high among women

While middle-aged and older women took time to get used to the bathroom, young women and girls started using the bathroom immediately after construction. Women used the bathing space regularly for taking a bath besides using it for other activities like washing clothes, utensils, urination and storage.

The ease and frequency of bathing among women increased

It was found that the frequency of bathing among women increased and the average time that women spent in taking a bath increased.

Taking multiple baths earlier was difficult as women finished their personal ablutions early in the morning and that was the only time they got privacy.  An enclosed and private space enabled them to take a bath anytime.

Use of personal care products increased

Earlier, when the women used to bathe in a pond or near the hand pump, they could not use personal care products like soap, shampoo, or loofahs to clean themselves and they used to bathe in a hurry. Using soap was of no use when they took a bath in a pond, as the pond water was not clean.

Women said that they could now use more personal care products because of the bathroom and could clean themselves better.

Privacy, comfort and safety among women improved

Women were happy to have a secure and private space for bathing. In Betul, half walled bathrooms were converted to full walled bathrooms to aid privacy of women.

Women who bathed near the handpumps or the ponds often faced harassment. For example,  in Jogai (Kharagpur), the women’s earlier bathing place was located near the hand pump facing the road which did not offer any privacy for the women. In Baretha, the hand pump was located in the middle of the village, and the women had to bathe when men went out to work in the fields. They had to wear clothes during the ablutions, wear the same wet clothes, go home, and then change into dry clothes. This was embarrassing and annoying for the women.

Health and feeling of well being improved

Women said that they felt much cleaner due to having bathing areas of their own and that they could now wash with clean water and not have to bathe in the algae-covered pond water because of an enclosed space. They could also use personal care products properly, bathe their children properly and regularly leading to improvement in their hygiene.

It was found that women participated more in SHGs, adult literacy programmes, training programs as they felt more confident and much cleaner while interacting with other women and the community in general.

Health of the women improved

Women reported a significant drop in the incidence as well as the intensity of various health problems such as joint pain, skin problems, backpain and reproductive tract infections that manifested themselves through symptoms like itching, irritation, burning sensation while passing urine, excessive vaginal discharge, pain in lower abdomen.

Skin problems were common in the area caused due to lack of a place to dry oneself properly following a bath and bathing in unclean water such as pond water. Prickly heat was a common skin problem in hot and humid places such as Kharagpur. All these problems reduced as women could bathe frequently and practise personal hygiene.

Women who bathed near hand pumps earlier had to pump water and then wash themselves. Since the bathing area was open, they used to take a bath crouched and squatted. This led to back pain and knee pain. The women who used to bathe in pond water, would often slip and hurt themselves while cleaning themselves. All this changed with availability of bathing spaces.

Menstrual hygiene practices improved

Majority of the women said that there was a reduction in discomfort faced during menstruation. Earlier, women had to draw and carry water before bathing, which led to discomfort during menstruation. The bathroom provided great relief as the women did not have to carry or pump water before bathing. They could also bathe as many times as they wanted to, to reduce the discomfort during menstruation.

Women also felt that they could properly use menstrual hygiene products like menstrual cloth or sanitary napkins as the bathrooms provided them the privacy to change their menstrual clothes when needed.  However, women did not wash their menstrual cloths within the bathroom. They washed it outside near a hand pump or a water tap.

Bathing spaces also helped women to have their own kitchen gardens

Along with benefits like privacy, comfort, safety, convenience, and health benefits,  the grey water from the bathing space also women to have their own kitchen gardens.

Drudgery of women, however increased

The responsibility of maintaining and cleaning the bathing infrastructure fell on the women. Additionally, the burden of filling and heating water for the family members for their bath also had to be done by women as they had to keep water readily available for bathing and cleaning. This increased the amount of time they spent in fetching water.

The study found that enclosed and private bathing spaces had a highly positive impact on the health and lives of women. Along with the movement of building toilets under Swachh Bharat Mission, it is time that secure bathing places are also given due importance and included in the discussions on sanitation facilities or infrastructure at the policy level, argues the paper!