We won’t ever have gender equality if women can’t access toilets

Lisa Hawkes, global sustainability senior manager at Unilever, explores how the TRANSFORM initiative is improving women’s rights in developing countries by improve access to basic sanitation.

We won’t ever have gender equality if women can’t access toilets

Image credit: Unilever

Fewer than one hundred public toilets serve the 20 million residents of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Usually, the city’s public toilets are found in train stations or markets; their location makes them often dirty and unsafe. It’s not uncommon for the water to be turned off for long periods.

Women are disproportionately negatively affected by this situation, especially in terms of their health. When they go out and about, they often avoid drinking water, so they don’t need to go to the toilet. The result is a high incidence of urinary tract infections.

As a teenager and young woman, Farhana Rashid – like all her women friends and relatives – didn’t stay hydrated when away from home. Many women she knew consequently suffered from health problems. But when her aunt died from kidney failure, she decided she had to do something about it.

An architect with a master’s in sustainable urban planning, she was in a unique position to tackle the city’s public sanitation problems. In 2017, she set up Bhumijo, a social enterprise dedicated to providing hygienic public toilets and wash facilities. She started with one women-only facility, but then expanded to offer toilets for all. Today, Bhumijo operates 34 pristine public toilets. It’s about to open six more. By 2030, the aim is to have a thousand.

Due to local cultural taboos around women using public toilets, Rashid had aimed for women to make up 7% of her customers. They already account for 20% – an exceptional outcome within the local context, but still far from parity with men.

Access to a toilet is a basic human right. Yet, it is one that women throughout the world are denied. Globally, more than one in ten women (13%) don’t have access to a private toilet. It’s one of the most common forms of gender discrimination, with a raft of negative consequences.

The lack of decent toilets in public spaces not only leads to health problems for women and girls – but also creates a significant barrier to their full participation in public life. Many are worried about leaving their homes, especially when they have their period. It compounds taboos and feelings of shame surrounding menstruation – as well as fears of sexual violence in dark toilet facilities or secluded urban spaces.

That’s why TRANSFORM (a joint initiative from Unilever, the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) provided Rashid with the funding to design women-friendly public toilets and test different construction techniques. Farhana is a perfect example of the visionary impact enterprises that TRANSFORM supports through connections to funding, ideas and resources.

Innovative social enterprises: Nepal and India

TRANSFORM has supported many other social enterprises that are facilitating women’s access to public sanitation. Aerosan operates in Nepal, where – like in Bangladesh – many women report taking extreme measures to avoid having to use the toilet. They abstain from eating or drinking, even if they are required to spend 12 hours or more a day working in public spaces, like markets. The organisation has taken the refreshing step of asking women themselves about the design of their own toilets. The results speak for themselves. After a women-led renovation of ones of its facilities in Kathmandu, the number of women who used it increased by 46%.

In India, Saraplast has created public toilets for women made from renovated buses that are positioned above existing sewer and water infrastructure. Positioned in central locations in the city of Pune, they are specifically designed to be convenient and safe for women, with all-women attendants. Their model has inspired Jersey City in the USA to repurpose their old buses into mobile showers and clothes washing centres for homeless people.

Taking action

These are the kind of initiatives that need to be rolled out across the world, to ensure that all women have access to clean and safe toilets. Otherwise, we won’t ever have gender equality. Women and girls’ physiology and reproductive health processes means they have different sanitation needs to men. The lives of those living in over-crowded contexts, like informal settlements and displacement camps, are marred in so many ways because they lack proper bathrooms. Anxiety around access to toilets causes millions of women around the world to limit their lives, hampering their prospects in terms of education and work. When it comes to their health, lack of a safe toilet can have detrimental consequences. In the 21st century, no woman’s (or man’s) life should be limited because she lacks a safe toilet.

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