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Unequal access to toilets remains a worry, and is central to global feminist movement

Inadequate toilet accommodations reflect society’s bias against women in the workplace and public spaces and reinforce the notion that women belong at home

Written by Mira Patel | Mumbai |
Updated: November 10, 2021 2:42:00 pm
toilets, womens toilets, feminism, potty parity, restroom, women workforce, bathrooms, current affairs, world news, indian express research, indian expressA report in 2007 found that there are almost twice as many public toilets for men than there are for women in Mumbai.

Kalpana Narvekar lives in a ramshackle slum, encroached across two office buildings in Mumbai’s commercial Fort district. The nearest public toilet is well over 15 minutes away by foot. Navrekar and her three young children either walk to the public toilet or relieve themselves on the side of the road, which is often the case. For her sons, this usually isn’t a problem but for Navrekar and her daughter, every time they need to use the toilet, they risk exposing themselves to strangers. In one particularly troubling incident, her daughter, who was suffering from diarrhoea, could not hold it long enough to find a secluded spot. As a result, she was forced to defecate near a busy road and was verbally abused by several motorists who were mostly men.

Lack of access to public toilets is a wide-spread problem in India. For women, whose bodies are particularly objectified, this poses massive ramifications in terms of safety, comfort, and health. Compounding the problem, public infrastructure is designed to cater to men. A report in 2012 found that there are almost twice as many public toilets for men than there are for women in Mumbai. Additionally, the toilets that do exist, lack proper hygiene standards and are often unsafe. A 2017 study by ActionAid India found that 35 per cent of the 229 toilets surveyed in Delhi did not have a separate section for women, 53 per cent did not have running water and 45 per cent did not have mechanisms to lock the door from inside.

Globally as well, the issue of unequal toilet access has a special place in the feminist movement. In 2012, women in China protested against the lack of public toilets for women by using men’s lavatories. In America, advocacy has resulted in legislation that mandates building standards which prioritise women’s restrooms, and laws that prohibit commercial spaces from failing to provide adequate facilities for women. The so-called potty parity movement is not a critical component of the feminist movements today, however, it is a topic worthy of consideration given the significant ramifications of unequal toilet access.

toilets, womens toilets, feminism, potty parity, restroom, women workforce, bathrooms, current affairs, world news, indian express research, indian express

How it works

Studies have shown that women take, on average, twice as long to use the restroom as men. These studies consider only the time used to urinate and don’t factor in the use of a bathroom as a social space. According to John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University and the ‘father of potty parity,’ there are a number of factors that contribute to this divide. For men, using the toilet usually involves zipping down their pants and peeing into a urinal. In contrast, women have to unbutton their clothing, pull down their pants and make contact with the toilet seat whenever they pee. One in four women are also menstruating at any given point, which increases bathroom time due to the need to use and dispose of sanitary products. Additionally, two groups that take longer on average to pee include children and the elderly. Given that women are often responsible for childcare, and that there are more older women than men, this also contributes to the problem. Perhaps most importantly, urinals take up less space than cubicles, so men’s restrooms tend to accommodate more people at a time.

Speaking with, Banzhaf states that having to use the restroom is an “immutable problem,” and therefore, denying women the same provisions as men violate their right to equality enshrined by law. Having to wait longer to use the restroom, or not having access to one at all, can cause a myriad of problems. Banzhaf notes that women often suffer from medical issues for having to hold in their pee and have fewer opportunities to network and socialise at public gatherings. Referring to the constraints as a “urinary leash,” Banzhaf argues that for many women, the lack of access to toilet can be a deterrent from straying too far away from home.

Additionally, for women in male dominated fields like construction and agricultural work, lack of toilet access can even prevent them from working. In 2004, Danish Khan, a Mumbai-based reporter, surveyed a number of public toilets in the city’s railway stations. He found that most toilets were closed due to clogged drains and some stations lacked facilities for women altogether. This in turn, he asserts, disincentives women from using public transportation, and limits their ability to work.

Kathryn Anthony, a professor of architecture at the University of Illinois, who spoke with, argues in a seminal paper on potty parity, that long lines for women’s restrooms can also have commercial implications especially at venues like sporting stadiums and concert halls when the demand for toilets peak at particular times. “Rather than face a long wait,” says Anthony, “women feel compelled to curtail or avoid liquid intake” which means they’re less likely to purchase concessions than men. The lack of availability and cost of sanitary products similarly hinder their ability to access and enjoy public spaces. Pregnant women and women with UTIs who find it harder to hold in their pee are also disproportionately affected.

While it is impossible to measure the economic and social costs of unequal access, Anthony does point to several scenarios that highlight the need for potty parity. She notes that in New York, several female taxi drivers quit their jobs because of a lack of public toilets while male drivers often just peed in a jar under their seat. Additionally, Anthony argues that while men can use unhygienic toilets, women, who have to touch the seat while peeing, face particular health risks from doing so. She also mentions that paid toilets, which have now been discontinued in the US, discriminate against women because men can use urinals for free and can pee in open spaces. In India, paid toilets still exist.

The impure woman

Despite the fact that toilets play a significant role in our lives, historically, very little consideration has been given to female restrooms. According to Harvey Molotch, a Distinguished Professor at NYU, who spoke with, this is because women are associated with “purity and cleanliness.” People don’t like to think of women using the toilet, which in turn, stigmatises the issue. The lack of discussion around women’s toilets means that in terms of policy, very little is done. According to Molotch, women are considered to be guardians of the home, and few public spaces were designed to accommodate their needs. Since 1857, the American Institute of Architects has had 97 presidents, of which, only five have been women. Lack of representation of women in architecture and construction reflects the lack of priority given to their sanitation needs.

Jeannette Rankin was the first woman to be elected to the US House of Representatives in 1917. It took until 2011 for female Representatives to get their own restroom (Wikimedia Commons)

Until very recently, workplaces dominated by men failed to include provisions for women.In fact, it took until 2011 for female Representatives to get their own toilets in the US House. Up till then, they were forced to use the same toilets reserved for the general population. Given that men can, and do, pee on walls, legislators who tend to be overwhelmingly male, don’t consider potty parity to be a prevalent topic. According to Molotch, the lack of action can be attributed to the fact that potty parity is both a women’s issue and one that is greatly stigmatised. “It’s what you would call a double whammy of prejudice,” he says.

Despite that, there has been progress. Banzhaf notes that over the last few decades, things have improved in the US. Now, 20 out of 50 states have potty parity legislation. However, that too comes with its drawbacks. For one, the legislation only applies to new buildings which means that existing establishments like courthouses and factories have to either break down men’s toilets and replace them with facilities for women, or disincentives women from accessing those spaces.

The former comes at a great cost which would have to be borne by the establishment. According to Molotch, there are “built in efficiencies” when it comes to existing buildings as it is difficult to repurpose hardware to convert men’s facilities into those suited for women. Anthony further argues that toilet parity is “really a controversy over economic resources.” She writes that “in the employment context, the concern is over who will bear the cost of incorporating women in the workforce” and outside the workplace, “the concern is who will bear how much cost in the public arena.”

In terms of the latter, there are historical incidents in which women have been unfairly targeted in order to meet toilet standards enshrined by law. Anthony references one such incident in her paper. In it, a Texas based company operated a factory with only one toilet for 80 workers, 95 per cent of whom were female. Instead of constructing more toilets in line with official regulations, the company fired twenty female workers. Thus, the laws, while being a step in the right direction, can be difficult to implement and/or come with trade-offs for both men and women.

What can be done

As stated previously, there are laws in the US which require new buildings to have two bathrooms for women for every one bathroom for men. In venues that accommodate large crowds, certain states have even mandated a 3:1 ratio. However, Banzhaf argues that while that legislation is useful to an extent, it doesn’t address the needs of existing structures. Pointing to changes made by his own University, he details three strategies that could be implemented instead to enable equal waiting times.

The first involves making men’s toilets unisex, so that women can either use a designated women’s restroom (where they may feel safer) or choose to share facilities with men. According to Banzhaf, most of his female students don’t have a problem with sharing a space with the opposite gender, however, he does acknowledge that the same may not be the case with other demographics, particularly the elderly.

The second option is to have unisex, single seater toilets like the ones you find on airplanes. This would eliminate the need for men and women to share a common space at the same time, but like the prospect of building more toilets, would be costly and take up a lot of acreage. Toilet design would have to be prioritised by architects and engineers in order for this to be feasible on a large scale and unfortunately, as Molotch notes, the people responsible for designing and maintaining these spaces often consider toilets only as an afterthought.

The third initiative involves constructing flexible bathrooms in places like concert halls or sporting arenas. Banzhaf states that there is evidence that different events attract different genders. For example, a stadium hosting a football match might see a lot of male fans on that day. If they were to host a gymnastics event the next day, they would then be more likely to witness an influx of women. Building toilets that are flexible would allow stadiums to convert them for men’s and women’s use respectively, on days where there is high demand for one or the other.

A female menstrual cup (Wikimedia Commons)

The quality of restrooms is also important, and Anthony argues that much more can be done with female restrooms in order to make them safer, more accessible, and better suited to women’s needs. She suggests employing more bathroom attendants so that women feel safer and also makes a case for female toilets so that more women can be accommodated at any single point of time. According to Anthony, menstrual products should be available in women’s restrooms so that women aren’t forced to run back home or risk soiling their pants in the event that they are unprepared for the onset of their period. Period tracking apps like Oky can also enable women to be better prepared in situations where restrooms don’t sell sanitary products. The menstrual cup, she adds, is another solution as it eliminates the need to dispose of pads or tampons and lasts almost twice as long as a standard large tampon thus reducing the need to change it frequently.

However, in countries like India where there is a stigma against unisex toilets and where menstrual products are not easily available, more creative solutions need to be found. Molotch suggests that India can reimagine entrances to bathrooms so that they are both visible from a distance and yet private enough to ensure safety and discretion. He says that in societies where caste differences are prominent, separate entrances can also be designed for different functions. For this, he provides the analogy of hotels. “When you enter the hotel as a guest, you have this large lavish door welcoming you whereas staff usually enter from a separate, more discreet door,” he says. If toilets were designed like hotels, people from different backgrounds can enter separately but ultimately share the same space.

India has made significant strides in improving sanitation measures. The Swachh Bharat campaign is actively promoting the construction of more toilets and better maintenance standards for existing ones. According to the Swachh Bharat website, the program has resulted in the construction of over 106 million toilets taking India’s rural sanitation coverage up from 39% seven years ago to 100% now. According to a study by the World Health Organization, the Swachh Bharat Mission in rural India was expected to prevent over 300,000 deaths from diarrhoea and malnutrition between 2014 and 2019. Coming at a cost of $14 billion, this campaign has produced tremendous results although the official statistics ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

Despite this progress, there is still a lot to be done. Outside of commercial establishments there are still far too few public toilets and given that restaurants and bars only allow customers use of their facilities, many poor people still face barriers to entry. In cities, public toilets for women are often overcrowded and lack basic hygiene standards. Having two toilets for women for every one toilet for men would help mitigate the problem. However, given that stalls take up more space than urinals and women take longer to pee, doubling the number of bathrooms alone may be insufficient.

Inadequate accommodations reflect society’s bias against women in the workplace and public spaces and reinforce the notion that women belong at home. Potty parity is an issue that people rarely discuss, and many feel uncomfortable with. However, unequal access represents a form of discrimination and should be addressed meaningfully at every level. Hopefully a combination of policy and investment will mean that by the time Navrekar’s daughter has children of her own, she won’t have to worry about their health and safety every time nature calls.

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