Dirty, Broken, Unsafe Public Toilets Mean Even Fewer Opportunities For Women

Many companies have come up with products like foldable and disposable urination devices, toilet seat sanitizers and covers, but are these of any real use?

Lack of accessibility to washrooms for women is not a new issue. It has been discussed innumerable times, yet required actions are not taken.

A report by Swachh Bharat Mission reveals that 74.6 percent of public places have toilets. However, installing toilets is not enough. Their need for maintenance remains unnoticed. A report on the maintenance of toilets and their usability is the need of the time.

Numbers do lie, as these still remain inaccessible to women!

Despite the numbers quoted by the Swachh Bharat Mission on installing toilets, these toilets remain inaccessible, a common complaint by women.

The ground reality is that the already installed toilets in place are unhygienic, do not have proper sanitation facilities, and lack safety. Most of the time, it is men traveling at night, driving buses and trucks on highways, or running dhabas. Naturally, these spaces have a higher percentage of men than women, which makes it difficult for the women to feel safe even to access the washrooms in the first place, let alone complain about its’ upkeeping.

Purvai, a History Master’s student at the University of Delhi (DU), states her experience of using public toilets while traveling from Delhi to Udaipur, her hometown. It was a “traumatic experience” for her, she recalls. Traveling in a bus at night, she was in dire need of using a washroom. However, the washroom was about 30 minutes away and also inaccessible. “If you look at the demography of the people traveling at any time of the day, especially at night, most of them are men. So even if there are stops for washrooms, whether it is a dhaba or a petrol pump, it will only cater to the need of men,” she mentions.

Purvai mentions that despite the availability of washrooms, the washrooms remain inaccessible as women do not feel safe using a washroom located in a place highly populated by men. Commenting on this, Nikita Sharma, a journalist based in Delhi, said that safety is an essential issue in the accessibility of washrooms. “It was a 12-hour journey from Delhi to Himachal, and the bus had stopped twice at night in Murthal and Chandigarh. At both these stops, the washrooms were in terrible shape. They were unhygienic and not at all maintained.” She goes on to say that she still used the washrooms because she had to. “Had I not been traveling with my friends, I would not have used the washrooms, as it felt unsafe going there at night alone,” she says.

Inaccessible washrooms in leading educational institutes

Another student pursuing Masters’ in Political Science from DU complains about the washrooms in her college. One can expect that, if not the roads, the educational institutions to have equal access to its students. However, it is also not the case. “Our old building has washrooms in tatters, broken flushes & roof leakages are not uncommon. While the condition in the new building is even more pathetic.” She mentions that despite having ample washrooms built, there are hardly any functional ones. The complaints of lack of water facilities, bad odour, broken door latches, and leakages are common across several educational institutions.

A Ph.D. scholar from Jawahar Lal University (JNU) also complains about the poor infrastructure at her college. “We did not have even one light bulb in our washroom for about a week. None of us felt safe using it. Sometimes, we had to go to a different hostel to use their washrooms.  It was only after several complaints that the bulb was installed.”

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These instances very clearly represent the lack of responsibility on the administration’s part. Though these washrooms exist on the premise of a women’s hostel, thus the safety concerns are not of that on the roads, where the male population is more. Yet, they still fail to be accessible. Despite having the light bulbs installed, there are infrastructural failures that often take place in JNU. “The buildings are not kept well. Our washrooms once broke, and two of the washrooms became inaccessible, increasing the pressure on the rest two remaining washrooms. Due to its heavy usage, the remaining washrooms soon became dirty and unhygienic, making it impossible for us to use them.”

Unhealthy hacks women follow to avoid using dirty washrooms

The issue of washroom accessibility took a new turn when working women were asked the same questions. Many mentioned that they often change their diets at work due to the lack of washroom accessibility. Drinking less water and holding their pee is a common hack to it.

Halima Ansari, a Yakult saleswoman, mentions that she avoids drinking water at work. As she works in the field, knocking on doors and selling Yakult products to people, the washrooms in her “office” are not an option. “I used to drink less water and hold in pee, and as a result, I had access levels of uric acid in my body.” She complained of severe joint pains, one of the common symptoms of Hyperuricemia (high levels of uric acid in one’s body), and her work was also affected.

“I am the only earning member in my family. My husband has glaucoma and cannot see; therefore, he cannot work. I could not focus on work when I had it [hyperuricemia]. My work demands me to be on the run, and I could not even set foot on the ground, but I could not take a break.” Usha, another saleswoman, also complains about the same. “Once, I was in dire need of a washroom, and I requested one of my customers. But they said no. I had no other option but to use a public restroom.” Ever since, Usha has made sure to drink less water at work, due to which she suffered from a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI).

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, women who drink more water are less likely to suffer from UTIs. However, most women avoid drinking water at work due to the lack of accessibility of washrooms and end up suffering from UTIs or other diseases.

Do we have a solution?

To solve this problem, many companies have come up with products like foldable and disposable urination devices, toilet seat sanitizers, and toilet seat covers. However, even to use a product like a urination device, one first needs access to safe toilets, which is not the case for many women.

The toilet seat sanitizer is advertised as a product that claims to protect customers from UTIs. However, many gynaecologists, including the famous ‘Dr. Cuterus’ on Instagram in a reel explained that just by sitting on a toilet seat, one does not get UTI. The main reason for UTIs is dehydration and holding pee. Thus, companies capitalising on UTIs by selling products like seat sanitizers have no science to back it up.

“I know it will not clean anything. But it is just a mental satisfaction. Even after spraying, I do not sit on the toilet. I squat. Most of the time, I use it to get rid of the odour, so at least I can make do with whatever facilities are provided,” says Nikita, commenting on using a seat sanitizer.

Are these products actually solving the issue or basing their claims on lies?

We reached out to these companies to know whether these products solve the issue or are just a marketing gimmick. Despite several follow-ups, we only received a response from the marketing team of a leading menstrual products and urination devices company. The head of this marketing team revealed that more than 30 lakh urination devices had been sold since inception, i.e., 2015. However, when asked how this device solves the issue of accessibility of toilets as one needs a private and safe space to use the product, which is not the case for many women, she said that “We assume that people use it [urination device] without a washroom”.

It is worth noting that a product capitalising on the issue of lack of washroom accessibility is based on an “assumption.”

Talking about the seat sanitizer, she also mentioned that the spray is used to fight off the odour that public washrooms have, which is stated in the product description. However, the USP (Unique Selling Proposition) of the seat sanitizer is its ability to “protect customers against UTIs and other toilet-borne infections”, which the marketing representative did not mention.

This brings us to the question of whether the companies that claim to solve the issue are actually solving it? Whether the authorities are doing enough by just installing toilets? Whether the issues that women face are even taken seriously?

Image source: a still from the series Delhi Crime 2

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About the Author

Ishita Roy

Ishita is based in Delhi and is a student of History and Journalism. She covers stories on law, gender and heritage. read more...

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