FOR most of us this is just a toilet. It’s not something we spend a lot of time thinking about; it’s not something we want to spend a lot of time thinking about. But that’s because pretty much every single person who’s reading this will have easy access to one. Take away that access, and you start to appreciate the significance of this seemingly insignificant thing.
Not having access to public toilets is still a common reality for many in Bangladesh, where the capital Dhaka has 1 toilet for every 215,000 people.
A 2003 study carried out by the government found that 42 percent of Bangladeshis relieved themselves along roadsides, behind bushes, aside homes or wherever they could find a place to go. As open defecation is linked to transmission of many diseases, such as cholera, diarrhoea and dysentery, eradicating the practice became one of the key targets of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
This has gone down dramatically since then, and Bangladesh has been commended for it efforts, but for certain demographics, the prospect of needing the toilet when in public is still a very real fear.
In the words of British Bangladeshi writer, Tahmima Anam: “People who haven’t resided in Dhaka may not understand just how distressing it is for women when they need to use public toilets.”
The issue isn’t just the lack of toilets in Dhaka, it’s also that the existing ones are in awful condition. They are squalid, congested, and dark. Many are non-functional; some toilets are used as storerooms and even sub-leased for shopkeeping.
In such a landscape, it is women and the poor who suffer the most, UN Habitat Youth Advisory member SM Shaikat told Asian Correspondent at the Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development Youth Forum, where he was addressing the issue. At the ARROW organised event, Shaikat stressed the importance of these public services, and the challenges still faced by many in the population.
Not only are the toilets dangerous and unsanitary, they also come with a fee that street dwellers cannot afford.
Many people earn little more than 80 Bangladeshi Taka (US$1) a day, said Shaikat. For men to use the toilets costs 5 Tk each time. Consider the need to use the facilities four times each day, that eats away a quarter of their earnings; an amount that many are, understandably, unwilling to pay.
“This is an economic challenge for the people that are already challenged,” he said. “They are left with no other option than to go in the street.”
That financial burden is also not shared equally. Women are charged double the amount men are to use the facilities; a price they have to pay for the luxury of just being able to shut the door, according to Shaikat. And while men can commit this private act of urinating with impunity in almost any public space, women’s basic safety in the open is far from guaranteed.
It is this double-whammy, Shaikat says, that results in women suffering from both long-term and short-term health risks.
“Many women don’t use the public toilets even when they need to and can afford it,” he said. “They force themselves not to go, resulting in urinary diseases, kidney diseases, serious health issues, all due to lack of access.”
Many women and girls hold their bladder or purposefully drinking much less water for fear of not having usable toilets around. This can then cause severe damage to the bladder, bowel and kidney as well other health implications for women, such as urinary and reproductive tract infections.
But the destructive ripples for women and girls don’t stop there.
“When they suffer with these problems, in a patriarchal society (like Bangladesh), women feel shy to talk to their male counterparts in the family, so they just ignore it,” Shaikat said. “When eventually they get really ill, they are helpless.”
“They have to rely on the male members of the family to take them to the doctor or the hospital, which is another form of suffering.”
A combination of out-of-touch politicians and short-sighted planners are behind the problem, Shaikat believes. And waiting for them to bankroll more toilets should not be relied on for a solution.
The solution could, in fact, be far simpler. While so many councils and charities look to building new facilities, Shaikat argues that the resources needed are already in place – so let’s open them up.
“You may not have the money to build 20,000 new public toilets, but each city has 20,000 religious spaces, mosques, churches, all of which have toilets.”
The misinterpretation of the “impurity of women” is the driving factor behind these spaces not being opened up, Shaikat says. Having tried numerous times, he knows first-hand the difficulties of trying to convince religious men to allow women access. But a shift in attitude to create an inclusive and sympathetic solution is needed to ensure the rights of those most vulnerable.
“As the economy improves, a certain level of people are seeing an improvement in their financial standards, but the poorest of the poor are not,” Shaikat said. “We need to give these people free access and use tax money to pay. That way we don’t leave anyone behind.”