While we are advancing with breakthroughs in space technology, the very basic needs of some of our citizens are not being met. I was flabbergasted to learn from Payal Tiwari of the Observer Research Foundation that in the Ambujwadi slum at Shiv Shankar Nagar in Malvani there is no toilet. The state of women there is horrific and in my opinion nothing short of criminal. This cannot be the same Mumbai in which we live but reality is a saddening truth. The trauma most women go through because of lack of good sanitation and toilets when living in informal urban settlements in Mumbai is magnified a hundred times here. According to Tiwari there are only four toilet blocks are used by 3,300 households, which are locked for people outside the locality where they exist! This means the majority of residents are forced to defecate in the open. This has a huge impact on the lives of the women who live there.
In almost all the households here, the women have given up their work because they fear for their daughters’ safety and dignity when they go to the toilets and always accompany them. The nearby open jungle has been designated as the community toilet and men and women’s sections have been identified. But it is the women who continue to suffer. They must protect their dignity from regular peeping toms hiding in the jungle who video record them while defecating. Some men have also been spotted with their pants down, making lewd gestures at women! In the monsoon, the area becomes slushy leading to bad accidents, especially among the elderly ladies.
In two separate incidents, a girl was abducted when she went to defecate, never to be heard of again while on another occasion, a woman was saved by her alert mother-in-law from being dragged away by druggies. Women also have to keep a look out for wild pigs that could attack them at any time!
What disturbs me the most is that in order to avoid going to the jungle, many women, especially the pregnant ones, use a designated sari to defecate in! The significance of this reality is not lost on me.
It is no wonder then that across Mumbai, where millions of women face never-ending sanitation challenges daily, apart from the constant humiliation to their psyche, they must also endure protracted illnesses like bladder control, urine, urinary tract and vaginal infections, chronic constipation, chronic dehydration, stress, muscle cramps, irritability, lethargy, weakness, gas problems and challenges to their menstrual hygiene. Lack of clean toilets mean women are unable to change sanitary napkins for long hours, which can lead to bacteria infections.
Why do we need good and well-maintained public toilets in a city like Mumbai? Gynaecologist Dr. Suman Bijlani informs, “Women need to urinate. Water is a most essential ingredient for almost all metabolic processes, which happen in the human body. Adequate water intake is essential for good digestion, excretion, skin health and mental processes, regular bowel movement. Without a decent toilet, what does a woman do?”
In the monsoon, diarrhoea, dysentery and typhoid are quite common. Obviously, in unhygienic toilets, this spread is much more likely, given that these toilets are filthy.
There is wide gap between demand and supply. Did you know that in Mumbai currently there is only one toilet seat per 1,800 women and that there is a shortfall of over 65,000 public toilet seats?
Further, the safety and security of women will always be at stake if there are no toilets inside houses. It is no wonder then that activists and many women in the slums are against having women’s toilets manned by men.
As I see it, the root problem lies at the lack of willingness to address public issues. A comprehensive uniform policy for the maintenance and construction of public toilets is what we need. Hollow promises made by politicians during election time will only compound the problems for women.
Ambujwadi is a glaring example of this. Here, the women say that many activists and politicians have come and gone over 20 years during elections, promising change. Meanwhile, the women still find themselves squatting in the open to defecate and the space they designated for the construction of toilets some years ago has now become a dumping ground.
The significance of their reality is not lost on me.
Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @shainaNC with solutions. Let’s start a movement today!