A 25-year-long struggle for a toilet - Hindustan Times

A 25-year-long struggle for a toilet

ByHindustan Times
Jul 01, 2023 01:50 PM IST

This article is authored by Anita Anand, communications and development specialist, New Delhi.

A month ago, while researching for an article I came across a curious piece of news. Women lawyers in the Nilgiris district in Ooty, Tamil Nadu had been petitioning for toilets at their workplace for the last 25 years. Imagine. That is a quarter of a century.

Gender Equality(HT Photo) PREMIUM
Gender Equality(HT Photo)

It took years of petitions and much angst to be heard. Finally, on June 26, 2023, the Nilgiris District Bar Association (NDBA) inaugurated a special room for women lawyers at the Combined District Court Complex, which had been completed in June 2022. While boasting of several amenities and facilities, it still had no toilets for women lawyers.

This action of NDBA was a result of a direction by the Supreme Court (SC), after several petitions by the Nilgiris Women Lawyers Association, ignored over years. This year, the lawyers appealed to the National Commission for Women who then urged the Madras high court to take immediate cognisance of this omission. On June 13, 2023, the Women Lawyers’ Association of Nilgiris informed the SC that they were allotted two rooms and a toilet for their use.

It boggles the mind that the NDBA, with 47 women lawyer members, did not see fit to provide a toilet for them in the new facility, forget the old facility, despite the protests and request from 25 years. But then, this is not surprising.

The world of work and workplaces outside the home has been the domain of men. Even when women entered the workplace in small and large numbers, there was little thought that they might need a toilet. A separate toilet.

This insensitivity to women’s health and sanitation needs extends from not recognising or ignoring the fact that women might need, not special treatment, but provisions for their differences. Women need to urinate more often than men, and more so during their menstrual cycles and when they are pregnant. Every adult woman menstruates once a month, except when she is pregnant or menopausal. She needs a bin to dispose of her sanitary napkins tampon during this period. It is often rare to find such disposal bins in workplaces or public toilets.

Lack of access to toilets means women hold their urine for long hours, at times the full day due to lack of toilet facilities. This has several severe consequences on women’s kidneys and bladders, bacterial infections in the urinary tract and overall health due to being unable to eliminate waste through urination.

In a land of differences, status matters and in workplaces, toilets are provided for executives, support staff and further support staff, who often do not count at all. The expectation is that staff from lower classes and castes will just have to figure out what to do, and this is, in most cases open urination and defecation. Even if there are public toilets, men often seem to prefer the outdoors. This is something women cannot and do not do.

Lack of attention to proper toilets, for people, has to do with our attitudes to bodily material that is impure and notions of purity versus impurity. Traditionally in India, people urinated and defecated in the open, in forests and jungles, as there was ample greenery, and the population was small. With urbanisation, and migration to the cities and urban areas, toilets, in homes, public and workplaces are an innovative idea. In rural areas too. While there is some residual resistance to having toilets in close proximity to homes, the primary question is: Who will clean the toilets?

The caste system delegates the job of waste removal of any kind to the lowest caste. From birth, Hindus learn about pollution and purification rituals spelt out in the religious texts, passed down generations. In modern India, we need to review if they make sense. Hierarchy and patriarchy then go hand in hand in perpetuating rituals and beliefs that may not be relevant today. Most toilets where they exist, could be better maintained, with separate facilities for women.

If toilets in workplaces are a challenge, the situation is mirrored in homes and public places. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) survey of 2019-21, 19% of households do not use any toilet facility, and 11% of urban households use a shared facility, contrasting with 7% of rural households.

Since 2014 India embarked on the most ambitious national programme, the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission) to eliminate open defecation. By 2019, toilet access was provided at home to over 105 million additional rural households, and technically over 500 million people across 630,000 villages had the opportunity to be pulled out of the practice of open defecation.

Back to workplace toilets: A 2019 survey by Action Aid India found that 9% of young working women reported toilets in their workplaces, but only 67% had access to them; toilets were not separated from the washrooms for men; there were no dustbins or hand washing facilities. The remaining 8% who did not have access to toilets in workplaces, used pay toilets in transit points or had to control their bladder till they reached home.

On August 15, 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his address on India’s Independence Day, shared his ambitions of India becoming a developed country by 2047 when the country will celebrate 100 years of Independence. While many government programmes for decades focused on sanitation and health, more attention can be paid to what in India we call ‘mindset’ or how we can change Indian hearts and minds on health and sanitation. Governance is about providing adequate infrastructure for citizens to live healthy and productive lives. Citizen responsibility lies in rethinking beliefs and traditions that may not be relevant in the present. The two must meet.

The 25-year struggle of the Nilgiris women lawyers is an important case study as to how and why despite laws and protocols, it is so difficult to get a facility so basic to women’s participation in the workforce and the economy.

This article is authored by Anita Anand, communications and development specialist, New Delhi.

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