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The Public Toilet Question: Gender Equity in Sanitation still a Distant Dream?

On 2nd October 2014, the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, declared a cleanliness drive – the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. Though it was a welcome move, many of its measures seemed to ignore the root causes of uncleanliness and targeted the issues only superficially. Among the promises made to the people was accessible toilets, specifically for the women.

Gender Equity in Sanitation still a Distant Dream

Previously, people in the rural areas would defecate in the open and this would be acceptable owing to the activity being passed over from previous generations. However, the need for toilets exist now as a result of the confluence of fast-paced urban development flourishing alongside a pre-existing rural framework. This development is what makes the glimpse of a stray cow at the traffic signal of a busy street in New Delhi a common sight. Building toilets in such localities would first require us to ascertain who would be the end users of this convenience.

Obviously, the homeless would be the primary users, especially if it is a free facility. Secondly, the hawkers, shopkeepers and vendors who run their businesses around these toilets would utilize its services and thirdly, travelers, whose numbers would depend on the location of the toilet.

Rural women going out in open fields, due to non-availability of toilets.

In order to falsely portray the success of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, the toilets are exceptionally maintained in tourist spots while they are in the worst conditions in areas where little to no tourist attractions are present. Clearly, the toilets are maintained according to who uses them, attributing to the inherent casteism and sexism prevalent in the Indian society. This serves as the ultimate barrier in the route to solving the above issues – a deep-rooted problem ridden with caste differences, a conundrum no savarna minister wants to tackle.

Women bathing in open, Varanasi, India

Through the results of a survey conducted earlier this year by ActionAid India on public access to toilets under the People’s Vision of the City Campaign, The intent is to bring out the deficiencies of the primary mission of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. One of the most surprising and unfortunate findings was that 35% of all toilets had absolutely no separate provision for women; the remaining 149 toilets were not completely functional – 66% of them did not have a flush, 53% did not have a fixed water supply, 51% had no provisions to wash hands. Additionally, 28% of all toilets did not have doors, 45% had no locks, 46% were completely unguarded and 38% had their septic tanks manually scavenged. In this ambush of statistics, where can we locate women and their experiences?

A Dalit woman with the job of maintaining the women’s toilets is not remunerated enough for cleaning the filthy toilets in the absence of running water or basic flushing mechanisms. Moreover, she is not motivated to perform the duty but is rather forced by the inherent casteism that has deemed it to be her job; it is an occupation she grew up watching and her children would grow up watching too.

The need for sanitation of women’s toilets is of paramount importance because the women, who need to make contact with the toilet while using it, are at a higher risk to get infected. In particular, for a menstruating woman, it is essential that disposal mechanisms are in place for her to have a proper area to clean up. These toilets must have self-cleaning mechanisms which are critical to deal with manual scavenging. Public toilets must be made accessible with ramps, braille signs and rails to assist people with disabilities. More gender-neutral toilets need to be established to cater to the transgenders. These measures need to be necessarily put in place to ensure the success of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan and positively impact sanitation and health quality of the common people, particularly the homeless.

A public toilet observed in Varanasi, Prime Minister Modi's Lok Sabha constituency.

In a country where women empowerment is given such great emphasis, how is the cause for women’s toilets neglected?
Can politics take a back seat while this scheme is implemented purely for the benefit of the people?
While bidding as a nation to become a superpower in the next decade, how can we let the sanitation issue for women be an impediment to the country’s progress?
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