The public urinal for women in India

When I was in India earlier this year, the cities I visited in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan had pissoirs – i.e. public urinals – for men every few blocks.  You never want to stand downwind from a pissoir, but they serve their purpose well, especially in the teeming marketplaces of India. Men just step up, unzip, and let fly. Despite the fact that they were urinating in public, private parts were never, ever visible, and the crowds of people walking by paid absolutely no notice. When we were driving around, we often saw men casually peeing by the side of the road or against a conveniently placed wall or tree. It was no big deal.

Women on the other hand, practically speaking, we don't have a user-friendly spout that we can discreetly poke out of our clothes. No we have to unbutton, unzip, drop trou or pull up our skirts and wrangle our panties around (or wear none at all). Under the best of circumstances, it takes longer for us to do our business than men and under lousy circumstances, it can be a real ordeal (if you're stuck with an old-school squat toilet, you'd better have really strong quads, since sitting is impossible. Then there's the worst-case scenario, where you wind up in agony with no place to go.  My sister, mother, and I spent more than one extremely uncomfortable afternoon in India with our teeth clenched, looking for a shop or restaurant that would let us use the facilities.


In places where the culture imposes strict standards of modesty onto women, there's obviously not going to be an equivalent of a public pissoir for them. My sister and I talked about this with our guide in Udaipur and he agreed–at first jokingly and then sincerely–that the bathroom double standard was entirely unfair to women. He explained: "The ladies don't leave home like the men do, so there's less need for them to have such places." That makes some sense–in societies with traditional gender roles, a woman's sphere is more limited, and if she has children, she's not likely to leave home for hours at a time. On the other hand, I saw a hell of a lot of women working for hours on end in the markets–in fact, most of the vegetable and fruit vendors in Udaipur were women–and I know they didn't have the same options as their pissoir-patronizing male counterparts. Maybe they had to hold it? I hope not.


Apparently having a safe, private place to use the toilet is enough of an issue in India that women have begun taking action. Last year the Washington Post ran an article entitled: In India, a New Seat of Power For Women–the seat of the title being toilets. Apparently young women in rural and modernizing parts of India are refusing to consider marriage to men who cannot provide them with basic plumbing. Because there are more prospective grooms than brides–the result of gender-selective abortions and female infanticide–women have more bargaining power than in the past, and they're willing to use that leverage.


With economic freedom, women are increasingly expecting more, and toilets are at the top of their list, they say. The lack of sanitation is not only an inconvenience but also contributes to the spread of diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid and malaria.


"Women suffer the most since there are prying eyes everywhere," said Ashok Gera, a doctor who works in a one-room clinic here. "It's humiliating, harrowing and extremely unhealthy. I see so many young women who have prolonged urinary tract infections and kidney and liver problems because they don't have a safe place to go."


Previous attempts to bring toilets to poor Indian villages have mostly failed. A 2001 project sponsored by the World Bank never took off because many people used the latrines as storage facilities or took them apart to build lean-tos, said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi, who worked on the program.


But by linking toilets to courtship, "No Toilet, No Bride" has been the most successful effort so far. Walls in many villages are painted with slogans in Hindi, such as "I won't get my daughter married into a household which does not have a toilet." Even popular soap operas have featured dramatic plots involving the campaign.


"The 'No Toilet, No Bride' program is a bloodless coup," said Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, a social organization, and winner of this year's Stockholm Water Prize for developing inexpensive, eco-friendly toilets. "When I started, it was a cultural taboo to even talk about toilets. Now it's changing. My mother used to wake up at 4 a.m. to find someplace to go quietly. My wife wakes up at 7 a.m., and can go safely in her home."

There's another upside in this story too, one with broad social implications:


Pathak runs a school and job-training center for women who once cleaned up human waste by hand. They are known as untouchables, the lowest caste in India's social order. As more toilets come to India, the women are less likely to have to do such jobs, Pathak said.


"I want so much for them to have skills and dignity," Pathak said. "I tell the government all the time: If India wants to be a superpower, first we need toilets. Maybe it will be our women who finally change that."


Being able to go to the bathroom when necessary, without shame or fear, is one of those seemingly trivial issues that has huge ramifications, especially for women in the developing world. Even in the industrialized world, it's a source of  inconvenience for us, and can be yet another simple indicator of gender inequality. As someone with a tiny bladder and a tendency to overhydrate, it's an issue that quite literally keeps recurring for me.


Becky Sharper