In the US, we may prefer not to use whatever restroom is available when the need arises but, hey, we can usually find one. The story is very different in India: While the country is enjoying rapid economic development, women in particular lack access to toilets, says the New York Times. More than half of Indian households have no toilet according to recent census data; that figure has actually increased as more people have left rural areas for the cities, where many live in slums.
Whether in urban or rural areas, women face discrimination to address a basic human need. In the countryside, they (like men) relieve themselves in fields, but women often do so in groups before dawn, for safety. In the cities, women — unlike men — often have to pay to use the toilet.
In Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India’s largest city, activists have begun a campaign for what is being called the Right to Pee. Minu Gandhi describes this as a “basic civic right…. a human right.” Mumbai has a long way to go towards providing this right:
…millions of people depend on public toilets, which are usually in dark and filthy buildings that operate as male-controlled outposts. The municipal government provides 5,993 public toilets for men, compared with only 3,536 for women. Men have an additional 2,466 urinals. (A 2009 study found an even greater imbalance in New Delhi, the national capital, with 1,534 public toilets for men and 132 for women.)
Almost always, a male attendant oversees these toilets, collecting fees. Petty corruption is rampant in India, and public toilets are no exception: Men must pay to use a toilet but can use urinals free (based on the premise that urinals, usually just a wall and a drainage trench, do not need water). But women are regularly charged to urinate, despite regulations saying they should not be.
The fee to use the public toilets is often just a few rupees (a few pennies). But that is money that must be used sparingly in a country where the government has defined the urban poor as those who live on 29 or fewer rupees a day.
Women also face leering and harassment when they use the public toilets. Because of this, and to save money, many try to drink little water and urinate as little as possible, resulting in dangerous consequences for their health. Temperatures can rise to the three digits in Mumbai and one physician, Dr. Kamaxi Bhati, cites a high incidence of urinary tract and bladder infections in the population.
Last year, at a gathering of activists in the state of Maharashtra, those from Mumbai decided to make the Right to Pee an issue. Activist Mumtaz Sheikh says that while the idea was initially thought a “little frivolous,” its importance was acknowledged and they have sought to spread awareness. While women make up about half of Mumbai’s work force, most work in jobs with no access to a toilet:
In various parts of the city, including slums, activists have gone door to door, collecting more than 50,000 signatures supporting their demands that the local government stop charging women to urinate, build more toilets, keep them clean, provide sanitary napkins and a trash can, and hire female attendants.
Some city and local officials have met with the activists and are promising to build toilets for women in their districts. Whether they will, remains to be seen. Dr. Bhati sums up the issue: ““It’s the responsibility of the government to provide toilets. Suppose my child has diarrhea. What do I do if I can’t pay?”
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