There is this nugget about Mrs Indira Gandhi in Karan Thapar’s ‘Devil’s Advocate’ (page 75). Before leaving for the movies, Mrs Gandhi advises Mr Thapar’s sister to use the washroom as there was no facility at the place they were going. When his sister asks her how she managed during an ordinary work day or while she travelled, Mrs Gandhi replies that it is very difficult for a woman politician. She managed by drinking all the water that her body needed before going to bed hoping that it would be out of the system before morning. This is a telling incident about the status of women in India. If Mrs Gandhi, the most powerful woman of her time had to make such adjustments because no facilities were available, one can well imagine the condition of ordinary mortals like us.
Mrs Gandhi has been gone these thirty five years. Have conditions improved? Are there usable public toilets these days? The answer depends very much on where in India you happen to be. I don’t think there has been any improvement in rural areas or even small towns. Things have marginally improved in big cities especially with the coming of large malls. When you consider how vast India is, this must make for a very minuscule improvement.
Otherwise public toilets simply don’t exist, or even if they do, are by no means usable by women. They are either so dirty that the memory of taking a peek at them keeps coming back weeks later or are dysfunctional either because of broken equipment or because of lack of water. This lack of clean public toilets affects women more than men given the fact that men in India have the freedom to pee anywhere they please.
Over time, in the midst of casual friendly conversations, I often ask women about toilet facilities at the workplace. These are ordinary women – salesgirls at small shops, small time women entrepreneurs, women who work at beauty parlours or at the local chemist’s. Some common facts that emerge are:
- Women are often mindful of the amount of water they drink when they are out of the house. Even when thirsty they tend to drink less water than needed.
- It is only very recently that many offices have got separate toilets for women.
- Sometimes no one thinks of this as an important facility; not even the women themselves; especially if they are young girls. They spend the entire work day not relieving themselves unmindful of the serious consequences to their health.
- As a solution, in some buildings all the women staff of the different small shops together maintained one of the toilets in good condition and kept it locked.
- Sometimes women in several buildings together had only one toilet to themselves. So, some of them never used it as they found it difficult to walk the distance to the toilet during the workday. Others found it embarrassing to take toilet breaks.
- In some of these institutions someone, usually a male monitored the toilet breaks taken by women.
- In some places there were no separate toilets for women so they preferred not to use them.
One of the ways of maintaining good health is to drink enough water and to urinate when you feel the urge. It is a basic human need. Yet many women don’t drink enough water precisely because there are no toilets available to them during the course of the workday. Still it is never given the importance it deserves. That is mainly because it affects women more than men. It is perfectly okay for men to send that jet of lukewarm pale yellow liquid on to compound walls, roots of trees or just about anywhere. So why should they worry about public toilets? They seem superfluous to say the least.
Often, under some government scheme or under the patronage of a political heavyweight, public toilets are launched with great fanfare. The latest in this line were the e-toilets. I doubt if any of them function. None of the ones that I normally see, but never dare to use, do.
A year ago I got talking to an elderly lady while on a visit to a village. We sat outside on the veranda on the half wall chatting. It was a hot afternoon and after some time I asked the lady for a glass of water. As she handed me the glass she casually remarked that nowadays it was okay to drink as much water as one wanted. Intrigued, I asked her what she meant.
“Now there are toilets in every house,” she said. “So convenient! When I was young we had to ‘use the grounds’ and we could relieve ourselves only either very early in the morning or wait for darkness to fall. So we were very careful of the amount of food we ate and the water we drank.”
Well, throughout this piece I have only thought about women who have access to toilets in their homes. It is a very distressing fact to remember that there are tens of thousands who don’t. And for fulfilling a basic human need these women have to often place their lives and safety at risk every day not to speak of the effect on their health about which tellingly, no reliable data are available as a cursory search of the internet reveals.
Let me end this piece with an incident that is forever etched in my memory. We were standing at our bus stop. There were only four of us. It was early morning and the road was practically devoid of traffic. It had rained the previous night and there were puddles of water by the side of the road. As we waited a woman crossed over from the other side of the road. She swirled her skirts around near puddle of water and sat down to do her job. Then job accomplished she scooped some water from the puddle with her hand and washed herself. Then got up and walked away without so much as a glance in our direction.
When will women be totally free?
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