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politics

The Women in India Fighting for the Right to Pee

In both large cities to rural villages, the obstacles to clean public restrooms for women in India range from filthy conditions to unaffordable fees to the threat of sexual assault.

Chryselle D'Silva Dias

Chryselle D'Silva Dias

Photo of a toilet sign in Odisha, India via Flickr user giona

"I have learned to control, like a good Indian woman," says Indian writer and illustrator Indu Harikumar.

While Harikumar could be talking about a number of issues, what she's referring to here is her bladder. Women in India can go without peeing for hours, sometimes even an entire workday. We learn early that women's restrooms are not readily available here, and if they are, they are dirty, stinky, and completely foul.

Although the availability of public toilets may seem like a relatively low-priority policy initiative to those in the West, a lack of access to safe, clean places to pee is a huge problem that goes beyond sanitation. Women who hold their urine for long periods of time have a higher risk of bladder and kidney infections, and those who avoid consuming liquids to prevent having to use the bathroom often become dehydrated. The lack of access to public restrooms in India is also a feminist issue: Public urinals are generally free for men to use, but women are often charged a "nominal" fee, ranging from one to five rupees, for use of public toilets under the justification that women's toilets require more water and resources; men's urinals are connected to a wall leading to a drain, whereas women need a squat toilet, doors for privacy, and access to water. And many of the supposedly "free" toilets are manned by workers who charge illegal fees to take home the profits for themselves. If you ask a public official—or one of these toilet attendants—why a woman is charged to pee while a man gets to go free, however, you might receive this common cheeky reply: "We don't know what you are doing in there, so you have to pay."

I recently visited [a village] in an elephant corridor where women were scared to do their business at night because elephants often came looking for food there.

The issue of access is also one of class. For a vegetable vendor or construction worker who might earn 100 rupees a day, every rupee spent makes a difference; these women are unlikely to be able to afford that "nominal" women's restroom fee. And while wealthy women can often pop into a restaurant to relieve themselves while out doing shopping or running errands, the average Indian woman would likely encounter discrimination if she tried to do the same. "We always get access to bathrooms because we are 'educated'," says photographer Madhu Reddy. "I have often walked into restaurants and cafes and requested to use their toilets, and it was never an issue. The question is about women on the streets. The flower and vegetable vendor. The lady selling coconut water. Can she avail the same as many of us?"

Women in Mumbai have had enough. For a city of over 20 million people, there are around 10,000 free or pay-per-use toilets as of 2012; out of these, only 37 percent are open to women. The Right to Pee campaign (RTP) brings together 33 local NGOs working for better access and availability of urinals for women in the city, which it sees as a basic human right.

The campaign, which began in 2011, was initially considered frivolous. "People made fun of us," says Supriya Sonar, lawyer, representative for the grassroots organization CORO, and RTP activist. But in Right to Pee's first few years, the group surveyed public toilets in the city, collected over 50,000 signatures at railway stations, and campaigned for budgetary provisions to build toilets for women. They spoke with workers in the unorganized sector, who have nowhere to go during the day, and with women living in slums, who often have to share a single toilet with hundreds of people. The cases of women being raped or molested while going to outdoor toilets—or going to fields because they don't have a toilet at all—have increased over the years, as has the number of girls who drop out of school when they hit puberty because of insufficient toilet facilities.

The funding and the space are not the biggest problem. It is the systemic gender-insensitive attitude that is the biggest obstacle for us.

"A large number of girls drop out of government schools because of the lack of toilets there," says journalist Sarita Santoshini, "and as we all know, many villages do not have toilets at all. I recently visited one in an elephant corridor where women were scared to do their business at night because elephants often came looking for food there."

On paper, the government is on board. In December 2014, the Bombay High Court ordered all municipal corporations to provide safe and clean toilets for women near main roads, and 96 sites have been identified for future public toilets. The money is there, too: In last year's budget, the local government promised 50 million rupees (0.75 million USD) to build new toilets.

A year later, not a single brick has been laid, and the funds are in danger of being reallocated.

"The funding and the space are not the biggest problem. Both are available on paper," says Sonar. "It is the systemic gender-insensitive attitude that is the biggest obstacle for us."

The Right to Pee campaign has also clear objectives: establish clean and safe public urinals for women placed every two kilometers within the city; include women's urinals in the 20-year development plan of Mumbai (2014–2034); modify urinals to enable physically challenged women to use the toilets; and provide dustbins and sanitary pads in the urinals.

"The journey has gone far beyond urinals for women," says Sonar. "It is now about safe and clean access to toilets for everybody, including men, the elderly, children, and the disabled." The proposed draft of the Development Plan of Mumbai states that every new construction site should include a toilet block for women not only within the building but also along with every other construction coming into existence.

Until these goals become reality, however, the lack of accessible toilets in India reinforces the idea that women should stay home and not be seen in public spaces. While the Right to Pee campaign may initially seem funny or frivolous, it's ultimately about granting women their basic rights in the 21st-century urban space. "The Right to Pee is really the Right to Cities," says Sonar.