Swacch Bharat Mahaan But No Public Toilets For Women Outdoors!

Men don’t face any consequences for doing it openly but women suffer from a lack of public toilets, especially if they work in outdoor spaces such as shops, markets or construction sites.

Men don’t face any consequences for doing it openly but women suffer from a lack of public toilets, especially if they work in outdoor spaces such as shops, markets or construction sites.

In many parts of the world, women aren’t found in the public sphere as much as men and the reason for this is that the odds are piled against them. For starters, society expects them to do only certain jobs if it allows them to work at all. And then they have to put up with work spaces that lack basic facilities like toilets – men find it easier to deal with this because hardly anyone would bat an eyelid at a man doing his business completely out in the open.

T. Nagar, an area in Chennai is no different – it too has a gendered aspect when it comes to public places. Now, T. Nagar is particularly interesting to talk about because it is unofficially thought of as the Commercial Capital of the City. It is almost a city in and of itself with diverse places of religious worship, a population of both traditional and modern people who influence the growth of the neighbourhood, new eateries and traditional restaurants that are frequented by this population, parks, cricket grounds, sabhas (which host famous Carnatic singers) and the thing it is most famous for – shopping places.

With so many places of work, it is no surprise that T. Nagar has both men and women who do all sorts of jobs. Such a busy area should boast of perfect public toilet facilities for all people who reside and work there, right? Turns out, that’s not the case and as a result, women have it harder.

While most of us reading this work in white collar environments, and have access to toilets easily at our workplaces, that is not the case for most women outside such environments. I talked to three such women who work in Chennai’s T.Nagar area about their own experiences and here’s what they had to say.

Where do women without toilet access go?

I’ve never really thought specifically about what women in workplaces without toilets do. But when I was asked to write this article, I was really excited, because I always thought it was unfair that men and boys got to relieve themselves so easily even when going on long trips.

I decided to talk to three different women who presently work in T. Nagar and find out their experiences and views on the issue of toilets. None of the women were shy to speak their minds once they understood what I wanted to know.

First, I talked to 32-year-old Mala*, who is a shopkeeper at a small store that sells things like stationary and certain food items. I asked her about the toilet situation and her personal experience. She told me, “There is no problem for people who own small shops. Their houses are right behind.” This is what she does too. But the problem with this is that, while shop owners may be able to use their own toilets, what about the workers they employ? Not everyone might feel comfortable using their employer’s toilet and the employer might not approve of it either. This is probably one of the reasons why we don’t see that many women working in small shops where there aren’t any toilets available. It’s not like they can use the public toilets either. Mala did give quite a scathing review of them saying that they are not at all nice to use and very unhygienic.

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24-year-old construction worker, Siva, has a different view on public toilets. She said, “They are good. I have used them.” However, it is worth noting that when I first asked her about how she uses the toilet, she never mentioned public toilets. She mentioned that she uses the toilets available at the site that she is working in (currently, there is a toilet available in the building where the construction is happening) or waits till she gets home. Siva clearly doesn’t mind using public toilets though.

Kamalam, a 52-year-old lady who irons clothes for a living had a similar answer to Mala when asked where she uses the toilet. “We use the toilet in the building behind”, she said. What’s different in her case is that the building isn’t her home. It’s an apartment where some of her customers stay. So, she has access to the toilets. Sadly, not everyone has the same privilege though. Most private buildings don’t allow outsiders to use their toilets. When asked about public toilets, Kamalam said that there aren’t any available nearby at all.

Swachh Bharat but no toilet for you, lady!

Cleanliness has always been promoted from the song, Sorgam Enbathu Namakku in the Tamil movie Nammavar (which is all about the importance of keeping a house clean) to the more recent Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. But talking to these women made me think about the hypocrisy of people in who promote cleanliness as a concept but fail to make sure that there are enough public toilets which are clean and accessible.

There is a lot of superficial talk on keeping roads clean but what is the point if there is hardly any focus on infrastructure, such as public toilets? What these women have told me shows that though there are a few good ones, there is an obvious inadequacy in both the quantity and quality of public toilets.

In 2017, the officials of the Greater Chennai Corporation (the Chennai Municipal Corporation) said its target was to install 1575 toilets in the next three years. But can we believe them? After all, in July of 2015, they said that they would finish installing 348 toilets in the city by the end of that year, however, they had only installed 313 by 2017 – 35 toilets less than their target set for 2015. This is indeed a very disappointing state of matters.

All hope is not lost though. I talked to my mother, V. Abirami, an urban conservationist and architect. She feels that the government has put in effort in installing more toilets, for instance – some new toilets have been built in T. Nagar recently. But she thinks that not many people are even aware of the fact that there are public toilets available nor are they educated in toilet etiquette. She strongly feels, “People need to be educated and made to understand that not using toilets properly is wrong. Even if the government builds toilets, if it doesn’t take responsibility to keep them clean, then nobody will want to use them. Men don’t even care, they just do it in the open wherever they want, it should be emphasised that this is shameful.”

This results in the dismal state of public toilets which nobody would want to use even if they were aware of them. She is of the opinion that more toilets should be built that are suited for use by women and cleaners should be employed to look after the toilets. Plus, people should be educated on toilet etiquette. And if despite all this, people still make a mess, she says that Western toilets (preferably with automatic flushes, if the budget allows for it) are easier to deal with and clean up, than Indian ones.

In addition to this, most toilets are not built for use by people with disabilities nor do they have good lighting which make them unsafe for women to use late at night. These issues need to be addressed too.

I sincerely wish for the abysmal state of toilets in my city to change soon, especially for the sake of its women!

* Name changed for privacy reasons

Image of a market stall owner credit runran, used under a Creative Commons license 2.0

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