A UN report predicts that 50 percent of India’s population will be living in urban areas by 2030. Women accessing public spaces for various reasons – work, education, business, shopping or simply to commute from one place to another, is going to increase due to the rise in urbanisation.
Gendered work choices
Women’s labour choices are often governed by social norms and are gendered. A majority of them choose education (24.2 percent) and retail (hotels and restaurants – 16 percent). 10.1 percent of women are engaged in personal care work, and 15 percent work as domestic workers.
The gendered choice of career is also influenced by factors such as access to public services – like maternity benefits, but also basic facilities like sanitation. Education and retail are considered more or less safe jobs for women, with basic sanitation available on site.
On the other hand, the majority of the working women are informal workers. For women in this sector, work is not a career choice, but rather a need. 1/3rd of 40 million street vendors are women. 30 percent of the informal workers in construction are women.
Dignity at work
For women informal workers, public spaces form a crucial part of their work. For many others, such as women students’, public spaces are an inevitable part of their everyday existence. The booming e-commerce sector - Swiggy and Zomato, as well as delivery services offer flexible employment opportunities. However, for women in this line of work, the absence of accessible, clean and safe toilets is a major challenge.
An Economic Times article (2014) discusses how the number of women in the workforce is on the rise, but toilet facilities for them are not keeping pace. It discusses a woman parlour worker in the busy Lajpat Nagar of Delhi over a period of 6 years, who complained about the absence of toilets within the parlours. She eventually quit her job. Another woman working in a food chain found the lack of separate toilets for women in the building extremely challenging. Especially for women who have to access public toilet facilities regularly, safe and clean facilities is explicitly linked to the fundamental dignity at work.
In research, there is a dearth of literature that looks at the interlinkages between the increase in female labour force participation and basic public sanitation infrastructures. Access to clean public toilets encourages active public participation of women, ensures freedom of movement, dignity at work, and encourages female labour force participation.
Need for gender-sensitive public sanitation infrastructure
While men can release themselves without losing their dignity or risking their safety even in the absence of public toilets or absence of hygienic toilets, women cannot do the same without risking their lives and their dignity. At the same time, there are different types of women who access these toilets – students, women with children, menstruating women, old women and disabled women. Therefore, it is crucial to design toilets that enable women, rather than force them to risk their health and hygiene, safety and dignity.
On average women need to use toilets more often than men. Women take about 90 seconds, while men manage in 45 seconds. While women need to go to the toilet more often due to the biological cycle, they take more time due to the kind of clothes they wear and depending on the type of women they are. Pregnant, elderly and disabled women are likely to take more time.
64.4% of young urban women according to the Action Aid report controlled their bladder by reducing their water intake for a few hours every day. “Out of this number, 26% reported suffering from a urinary tract infection and stomach ailments”. A research study undertaken in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh suggested that out of a sample of 620 women 6.77% of urban respondents had suffered from some form of reproductive tract infection where lower abdominal pain was the commonest symptom. The absence of clean toilets for menstruating and pregnant women is particularly dehumanising.
In Delhi, according to Action Aid survey report, 149 out of the 229 toilets have provisions for women (65%). “53% did not have running water facility. 51% did not have the facility to wash hands, 61% of toilets did not have soap to use. It was also found that 28% toilets did not have doors, while 45% toilets did not have a mechanism to lock from inside.”
In Guwahati city, a month-long survey conducted by G-Plus in 2021 on people’s perception and usage of public toilets in the city noted that 80% of its population thinks public toilets are very dirty and only 8% said they continue to use the toilets regularly in spite of pertinent hygiene questions. Therefore, 86% of women out of 250 surveyed by Action Aid report that they need to be escorted due to safety concerns.
Lack of proper public sanitation facilities infringes on the right to freedom of movement of women. It forces them to be dependent on men while compromising on their dignity and safety.
In an applaudable initiative by Delhi and Karnataka Restaurant Associations, especially women and children can use their toilets. However, it is important to remember the class of women that such initiatives cater to. Will hotels and restaurants allow street vendors to use their facilities?
‘Ladies and gents: Public Toilets and Gender’ by Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner poignantly highlight the politics behind the absence of gender-inclusive public facilities, as basic as toilets – “One way to keep women at home was to not provide public toilets.” Therefore, designing public toilets inclusive of women’s needs is fundamental to gender equality.
Borrowing lenses from social, technical, institutional, financial and environmental perspectives, I have identified key areas to keep in mind while designing and maintaining clean and safe public toilet infrastructures for women.
Location and safety
Where is the toilet going to be? What else is going to be around? These are a few essential questions that are important to consider before identifying locations. Surveys show that a major deterrent for women from using public toilets is its isolation, especially after dark. Therefore, toilets and streets leading to these facilities need to be well lit. Having alternative lightings through solar panels can ensure that none of these facilities ever go dark. Another approach to make the location of these toilets safer is populating the area leading up to the toilet and around by women-specific stalls and shops.
Equally important to consider is the distance between two toilets. According to Swachh Bharat Mission, public and community toilets should be placed at every 500 metres, which is a great initiative if implemented successfully. However, when it comes to market areas, these sites have higher footfalls than any other place. Therefore, having more toilets in such places should also be considered. Since most of the urban poor also use public transport more often than others, toilets near bus stops are also ideal.
The separation between women and men’s toilets
The two toilets are often placed beside each other. While this may seem commonsensical, it might be more appropriate to place the two in different places.
Building and maintaining safe infrastructure
Low placed windows and cracks can be a concern for safety. Regular inspection to ensure that there are locks on doors that actually close are small details that make using these facilities safer.
Designing for different types of women
For an inclusive toilet, different needs of women, and different types of women need to be considered while designing. While pregnant, old and younger kids might benefit from handles placed inside the toilets for support, built-in stands to change diapers/apparel for kids can be convenient for women with children. There are also women with different kinds of disabilities and therefore the need to build ramps and railings at the entry. Many airports, malls and hotels have incorporated these details into their structures.
24*7 water supply to clean and for a cleaner toilet
Public toilets without a 24-hour water supply are often unusable. They leave unbearable stench and these toilets are often littered with unflushed stool, and the entire toilet becomes a breeding ground for infections. One would rather withhold or drink and eat less instead of having to release oneself in a dirty, stinking toilet that you also have to pay for.
A regular supply of usable water will ensure not just more frequent use but also less tortuous and dehumanising experiences. Especially for menstruating women, water is essential. The presence of water can solve many health and hygiene problems that women have to constantly worry about, even before they have left the house.
Choice of seater
Apart from special needs for women with disabilities or pregnant and old women, Indian squatters are ideal for public toilets. This ensures a distance between the toilet and the skin and may go a long way in avoiding infections from using shared toilets (seat) like in the case of European toilets.
Connection to underground sewer
Since public toilets will have constant users, it is important to connect these toilets to the city’s sewer system. This will ensure that the waste goes through proper channels to the treatment plant where it can be processed and used as manure that can benefit adjacent agriculture farms.
65% of Indian cities do not have a safe collection of human excreta, according to a report done by Down to Earth. Connecting it to the city’s sewer system will ensure that human waste does not mix with water bodies, polluting rivers and groundwater bodies. The pollution of water bodies will in turn continue to cause a cycle of sickness, diseases, death, and loss of individual time (especially of women in care work) and money as well as pressure on the state for remedial welfare. This is the loo loop.
Financing public toilets
The survey report by Action Aid also mentioned that many women end up spending Rs. 5-10 per day, even though the majority of them reported their annual income to be less than Rs. 1 lakh. Keeping these in mind, while acknowledging the benefits of a public-private partnership or private ownership of public toilets for better maintenance, one needs to consider how maintaining profit margins can be ensured without disempowering the urban poor who need to regularly use these facilities. Therefore, one needs to ensure that the right and dignity of the urban poor is maintained while making these public toilets financially sustainable, for better management and monitoring.
To make public spaces more inclusive for women, and to encourage and increase female labour force participation while ensuring dignity at work for informal women workers for whom the streets are their place of work as well as for other women, it is essential that we ensure ‘equality begins at the toilet’. Swachh Bharat rural and urban are both essential to tackle deaths and infections caused due to poor access to safe and clean toilets with water facilities.
The biggest challenge to such large-scale projects is monitoring. The well-functioning of each of these toilets is dependent on the monitoring mechanism. Public-private partnerships or private infrastructure therefore can be more efficient in their delivery of services. The interest of the urban poor women and their financial limitations need to be kept at the centre.
It would also be interesting to monitor and compare current health, death, and disease data with the changes that would come with improved, safe and hygienic public sanitation in place since researches have concluded that states can increase their revenue by investing in basic sanitation facilities.