It was a Sunday, but I had pending work piled up. So I decided to spend the morning in the office finishing off some work. At noon, as I exited the department, I noticed two middle-aged women scurrying to squat near the rain-water drains just outside our windows. My first instinct was to yell at them. How could they think about relieving themselves outside an office? Didn’t they have any civic sense? But something made me stop.
Was it entirely their fault? The truth was there was no restroom for relatives on this side of the hospital. It was raining outside. Who knows how many hours they might have had to hold their bladders while they took care of their loved ones in the hospital. Should I embarrass them further? After all no woman likes this moment of ignominy. What they were doing was not something they could avoid. A relatively empty corridor and a semblance of privacy had made them choose this place.
To many administrators, public restrooms are equivalent to eyesores. They would rather not have something unaesthetic as toilets marring the view. When this question is raised in meetings, wrinkled noses and muffled giggles are very common responses. But it is high time clean public washrooms were considered basic requirements for every citizen of this country.
Most of us have travelled abroad and have never encountered difficulties finding a properly maintained public washroom. You will find them on every street corner. But in India, with all its glorious heritage, and its capacity to attract tourists from across the globe, well maintained public toilets have never been a priority.
Here you will be expected to travel for more than 10 hours on bus journeys, without any toilets on board the vehicle. All too often, the driver will stop in a random place in the middle of the highway, where the conductor will loudly announce a ‘bathroom stop’. The men will line up, unzip and relieve themselves easily. While the women will continue to hold their bladders in distress. If you feel you are bursting, you can find a bush or a pile of stones to secure your modesty and forget about who is staring at you. This is considered normal. I distinctly remember a time when a road trip was being planned to attend a conference. A faculty member, who thought he was very funny, loudly exclaimed: “Let’s not take any women along. It is such a bother to find them toilets!” Oh yeah! And you guys can do the nation some honourable service by fertilizing some open fields! Such sexist crap!
It is a well known fact that women restrict fluid intake to avoid using toilets, and it worsens their risks of acquiring urinary tract infections. We have all heard stories about how many girls drop out of school when they attain puberty, simply because schools lack toilets where girls can change their sanitary napkins. But the situation isn’t restricted to rustic areas. The attitude is equally bad among the educated elite.
There was a time when some major renovation was going around. The gents toilet was the first to be repaired, because…. well, because the people in power were men. And enlarged prostates notwithstanding they needed a place to pee. And since women will not complain, the ladies toilet was a place to store cement bags and tiles. There was no urgency in completing that renovation. We suffered silently for more than a month, until I mustered courage to talk to a senior faculty about this delicate matter. He looked at me, smirked and said,”Madam, itni chhoti baat ke liye aap mere paas aaye hain! (You’ve come to me for such a trivial matter!)” Trivial matter indeed. One and a half months of working eight hours in a department without a toilet. A department with over forty working women. Not urgent. We were told to find a toilet in another department. What he forgot that hierarchy rules everywhere. Toilets of other departments were accessible to senior faculty. But students and technicians were not allowed to use them. And we had two pregnant women during that phase who went through a harrowing time. On another occasion a state chapter conference of 350 doctors was organized, with none of the ladies toilets having a door to close! That is how unimportant the issue is to educated administrators. But then women and their issues hardly matter to men in power.
It is time we erase those archaic notions from our heads. Clean, well maintained and accessible toilets are a basic right for both men and women. Administrators and policy makers in this country need to be more sensitive to our rights. Things have improved in airports and to some extent in railway stations. I don’t see why this campaign shouldn’t extend to every street of this country. And if we still feel ashamed of raising this issue openly, we can be content with hiding issues of continence behind contrived curtains of shame.