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 in developing countries face unique challenges when they realize they have to pee, challenges women are often uncomfortable discussing in public.In the dirt-poor and vast slums of Mumbai and Delhi, women find themselves curtailed geographically by access to a public bathroom or somewhere they can safely relieve themselves. If they do need to use a public bathroom – of which there are few in India with women’s facilities – they are often forced to pay for the privilege. This can be quite a lot of money in a nation where average income barely tops $2 a day. Home bathrooms aren’t a particularly viable option either: more than half of Indian households have no toilet, according to a 2011 census. And in the Indian cities of today, where women are going off to work and farther away from home in ever-increasing numbers, the problem is likely to only worsen.
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.
Toilets are also a major factor in getting girls and young women to go to school and stay there. Many schools in the developing world fail to provide adequate toilet facilities for girls, and the profound social embarrassment and personal inconvenience this breeds—especially for menstruating teenagers, as any woman can attest—often causes girls to drop out entirely in the poorest countries.
UNICEF found that one in ten African girls miss classes or even drop out due to hygiene problems related to their period, while 20% of pubescent girls in developing countries are absent for at least part of the year for the same reasons. Once schools build bathrooms, the changes in girl’s attendance are often remarkable. A Tanzania school saw an almost 100% increase in girls attendance after building more female-only bathrooms.