The City Where Hundreds Of Women Must Use The Same Toilet & Wait In Line For Hours

Photo: Courtesy of Coro India.
Deepa Pawar, 29, is fighting for greater access to toilets in Mumbai.
Deepa Pawar remembers vividly when she first told her family and friends she had joined the Right To Pee campaign. “Everyone laughed at me,” she said.

But there’s nothing funny about the movement that has attracted support from Pawar and scores of other young people in India. It’s meant to call attention to a serious sanitation problem that hits Mumbai’s female population especially hard: a lack of access to safe, clean toilets.

“When a woman is not given access to a bathroom, it is nothing short of political violence,” Pawar, 29, said. “By failing to build us toilets, the government is implicitly saying that women shouldn’t leave their homes.”

Many women who live in what are known as bastis, informal urban settlements throughout India’s financial capital, have virtually no bathroom access. While the issue permeates class, caste, and gender, the more vulnerable segments of society are the worst affected. In this case, that means women who belong to the Dalit and other religious minorities.

Often, Mumbai’s bastis will have a single toilet that is meant to serve hundreds of women in the area. Women who have to leave home for work must wake up early in the morning and wait in line for hours to use the toilet. The other option they have is to urinate in the open fields surrounding the basti, which is a choice that can turn a basic human necessity into a dangerous task.

When a woman is not given access to a bathroom, it is nothing short of political violence.

Deepa Pawar
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“For modesty’s sake, the fields can only be used in the dark: before sunrise or after sunset,” Mumtaz Sheikh, another active campaigner in the Right To Pee movement, explained. “A lone woman in the dark field is an easy target for rape. And such cases of rape are common.”

In a short time, the Right To Pee movement has gained recognition in India, as well as the rest of the world. Campaigners have successfully influenced India's government to create an unprecedented budget for the construction and maintenance of public toilets for women. The campaign has also raised awareness about the adverse health and sociopolitical effects that the lack of sanitation can have.

Supported by 33 nonprofit organizations, the campaign came together under the banner of Coro India, an organization that develops community-based approaches to improve the lives of the marginalized and oppressed. Local women have also played a major role in making the campaign a success.

For Sheikh, her activism began 15 years ago, when she noticed that an outsider was conducting a survey in Chembur Trombay, the basti she lives in. She learned that the outsider belonged to Coro India.

“I thought to myself: This basti is mine, its problems are mine and the solutions affect me,” said Sheikh. “Then how can someone from the outside conduct a better analysis than me?”

So she decided to get involved. Sheikh, now 34, has since become a Coro member, working on all kinds of social issues in the basti, including rape and domestic violence.
Photo: Courtesy of Coro India.
Mumtaz Sheikh, 34, has been working for women empowerment for 15 years.
“The women of Mumbai face a lot of problems,” Sheikh told Refinery29. “But the lack of access to clean and safe toilets limits their mobility and affects their health, so it is a huge problem.”

Public toilets do exist: Mumbai’s municipal government has built 8,459 public toilets and urinals for men and 3,536 public toilets for women, according to The New York Times. While men’s toilets are free, because the urinals require no water, women are charged to use the toilet.

"When you are earning less than 29 [rupees] a day, a charge of 2 [rupees] to 5 [rupees] to use the bathroom is a burden," said Sheikh.

Safety and privacy also pose problems. Some toilets, for example, have shutters and boards instead of doors.

“Often young men will sneak into the toilet to take drugs, and when women come in to use them, the men harass them,” added Sheikh.

This year, Right To Pee had a gender friendly and eco-friendly design of toilets approved by the municipal government of Mumbai. “The structure of the new restroom itself will ensure women’s safety,” said Sheikh.

Often, Mumbai’s bastis will have a single toilet that is meant to serve hundreds of women in the area.

Another achievement the group won this year was the approval of a budget five times larger than previous ones for the installation of new toilets and the maintenance of old ones. But the funds have yet to be released, activists say.

“In India getting the budget approved is only the start of the battle. We have a long way to go,” Pawar said.

Along with getting the budget approved, Right To Pee has also managed to have their demands for women’s access to public toilets added to the Maharashtra State Commission for Women Policies.

Promoting awareness and encouraging people to talk openly about an issue that involves something as private as using the bathroom is a key part of the campaign’s mission. Even members of Coro India were at first uncomfortable using words like "urinal" or the Marathi word for "pee," activists say. In fact, the current, catchy campaign name of Right To Pee only recently replaced the much longer original: “We Want Safe, Clean, Free, Government Toilets For Women.”

When Supriya Jan-Sonar, a lawyer, and a member of Coro India, began campaigning for women’s access to public toilets, government officials asked her: “Aren’t you ashamed of making such personal and frivolous demands?”
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If the society and the government can make so many other decisions about my body, then why are they so ashamed of talking about urinals? The personal is political.”

Supriya Jan-Sonar, Coro India
But the issue is far from frivolous.

“When women don’t have access to safe toilets, it causes diseases, increases risk of sexual abuse, and limits their mobility,” Jan-Sonar told Refinery29. “Since these problems are linked to women’s bodies, it is seen as a personal problem, not as a social or political problem.”

Plus, she added, the government and society aren’t shy about wading into other “personal” aspects of a woman’s life.

“Society tells us when to get married, when to reproduce, and when to start covering ourselves. We are banned from going to temples when we are menstruating, and the moment we reach puberty, the public space available to us shrinks. Is all of this not personal? If the society and the government can make so many other decisions about my body, then why are they so ashamed of talking about urinals?” Jan-Sonar said. “The personal is political.”

For Jan-Sonar and others, Right To Pee is a stepping stone in the broader battle Mumbai’s women have to fight for equal rights in the city.

“We want to reclaim that public space, and asking for clean and safe public toilets is just the first step,” said Jan-Sonar. “We have known that this fight is not easy since the first day when everyone laughed at us, but we are determined to win.”

Opener Photo: Prakash Singh/Getty Images.

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