Over the past year, journalists have swarmed like bees to document the thousands of farmers protesting at the Delhi borders. The protest has lived through the hottest and the coldest months, far from the heart of the city.
I covered three prime protest sites which meant hours on ground, at times even through the night and it was an invaluable experience to my journalistic career. But this would only be one way of looking at it. Hours of coverage also meant equal hours controlling my bladder. In spite of my low blood pressure condition, I would suppress my thirst because the two closest toilets were an overused gas station restroom and a secluded basement toilet at a nearby museum. An incident of encountering male protestors inside the women’s washroom at the museum while I was relieving myself, made me feel unsafe and hesitant to count it as an option thereon.
The problem had a larger impact. The protests were witnessing fewer women participants due to the “lack of toilet access.” The men could relieve themselves in bushes or at a local’s house nearby which wasn’t an option for women with looming safety concerns and shaming. After many such dehydrated days while reporting, I had to see my gynaecologist who diagnosed me for a Urinary Tract Infection. The whole experience affected my health, and my work. The infection had worsened due to days of water intake negligence and the doctor strictly advised me to take a few days off to recover. Unwillingly, I had to withdraw myself from covering one of the largest protests of our times losing out on a precious professional opportunity. Simply because India does not have enough, clean public toilets.
While insufficient public toilets are a concern in general, the limited fraction available for women as compared to men is a graver concern. In the national capital, a report from last year by Praja Foundation, a non-profit organization, revealed that “in terms of sanitation, men to women disparity is high.”
To put it into perspective, the report found that one public toilet seat was available per 3,982 men, whereas a single public toilet seat was to cater to 9,630 women. This data doesn’t meet the urban guidelines of the Swachh Bharat Mission, a toilet building campaign by the current government, under which there should be one toilet per 100-200 women.
Even the installed public washrooms lack maintenance and cleanliness and most of them have no effective security measures, deterring unaccompanied women from utilizing them. While I’m on the road, as a menstruator, I have to change my pad between 6-8 hours, maybe even more frequently, but at each pitstop I have to keep an eye out for a restaurant where I have to place an order to use their washrooms. This example speaks volumes of my privilege to be able to afford this. The situation is worse for women from marginalized communities and those living in rural India.
“I had to withdraw myself from covering one of the largest protests of our times.”
Due to poor toilet access, countless women in rural India walk to the fields, which double up as toilets, after sunset affording them some privacy but challenging their safety.
As reported in May 2014, two teenage cousins were killed in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district when they went to relieve themselves in the fields. The incident is still being debated in the Allahabad High Court and is remembered as the “Badaun Horror,” seven years later. The mother of one of the girl’s was recently reported calling women relieving in fields a “scary and uneasy routine.”
Despite my privilege, I have been subjected to public humiliation more than once as I couldn’t control my bladder flow after hours of holding it in.
I have relieved myself in my pants while travelling in a bus, at a gas station entrance because the washroom was locked and in a friend’s car. But, over time I have realized that more than me, the system that created this disparity should be shamed for making it harder for a woman to step out.
Some solace amidst these stories of woe are campaigns like the ‘Right to Pee’ by CORO India that are bringing awareness to the disparity in sanitation facilities in the country.
The campaign draws attention to women’s sanitary struggles by advocating for free, clean and safe public urinals. In Pune, a private sanitation company in collaboration with the local civic body has conceptualized turning decommissioned buses into women’s toilets. The key takeaway could be the appointment of a female staff at these lavatories, which creates a sense of security for female users at odd hours, rather than a male or no security. But it is worrisome that in a country where approximately 48% of the population is women, campaigns have to be launched for something as elementary as a toilet.
Women shouldn’t have to give up on education, work, travel or anything for that matter, because the administration is failing to acknowledge their basic civic needs. They shouldn’t have to continue defecating in the open despite fear of being watched and humiliated.
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