You’ve got a lavender-scented bathroom down your hall, a relatively clean bathroom at work, and you can be reasonably sure that that dodgy gas-station will have somewhere for you to go if you drank one cup of coffee too many before you left the office. What we in the West often fail to realize is that this pleasing bathroom security is a remarkable luxury in many parts of the world where bathrooms are not the norm—and women are especially affected by this inequality.
Now so-called “potty parity” has hit the international agenda, and people world-wide are trying to figure out how best to address this very basic problem.
Women are also forced to deal with the threat of rape, mockery, and sexual harassment if they must visit a public – and often male-controlled – restroom in the evening hours, meaning that many women attempt to drink as little as possible at certain parts of the day. Holding it in for hours a day isn’t just uncomfortable. It can also lead to serious health problems, including bacterial infections, loss of bladder control, and other unpleasant conditions. Urban Indian women with jobs in bathroom-deserts often find themselves carrying plastic bags to relieve themselves in, which are delicately called “flying toilets” – a disturbing proposal indeed in a relatively public area with a high risk of sexual harassment from men. Lack of access to a private bathroom of some kind is even worse for menstruating women, who face extreme social embarrassment and potentially dangerous hygiene problems if they can’t find a facility.
All this inconvenience is much less of a factor for men in India and elsewhere in the developing world, who are able to leisurely relieve themselves against just about any standing structure without much fear of social censure – and the odiferous sanitation problems constant male public-peeing cause are also a subject of concern. Men often monopolize public bathrooms in India and usually serve as attendants as well, alienating women, forcing them to pay to urinate despite laws dictating otherwise, and making them feel uncomfortable in the few public restrooms they can use. Indian women have finally had enough of this glaring bathroom inequality, and are beginning to fight back with high-octane potty parity campaigns centered on major urban areas. The widely-publicized “Right to Pee” campaign, spearheaded by 35 NGOs, hopes to make free public bathrooms with changing rooms and sanitary towel vending machines the norm instead of the exception.
It’s worth pointing out that women calling for a 1:2 bathroom stall ratio for men and women are being entirely logical, male-rights activists complaints aside. Exactly equal numbers of bathrooms for men and women fail to address simple biological reality: women have to use bathroom stalls much more often, they are more often responsible for taking care of children, and they often have to spend more time in the bathroom when they are there thanks to their anatomy. All this translates into a longer average stay in the bathroom, and considerably longer wait-times in busy areas – and contrary to popular belief, this actually isn’t because all women are frittering away their time gossiping and doing their nails.
The upside of bathroom equality movements for the development-minded is that this is one of those rare problem that is actually relatively simple to fix: build more public bathrooms, in more places, for more women, and make sure that they are both safe and relatively clean. Access to a vending machine for sanitary napkins would be a nice touch as well. The creation of more free bathrooms – and they need not be fancy – will provide millions of women with more geographic and economic mobility, better health, and more personal safety. This is not rocket science, and it isn’t intrinsically embarrassing or shameful, either. Instead, bathroom equality is the simple pursuit of access to a very real, and very important right.