Meena*, a part-time domestic worker in South Delhi, begins working at 7 am every day. Well into her 50s, she is employed by the South Delhi Municipal Corporation to sweep roads and collect household waste from residences in Munirka. Once this work is complete, she also cleans the toilets in 3 to 4 houses in the area. She completes her work by 3 pm. During her workday of over 8 hours, Meena doesn’t use the bathroom, even when she wants to. She says, “I have never asked any of my employers if I can use the toilet.”
Similarly, Preeti*, a 30-something domestic worker from the same area, says, “I work in 5-6 houses, where I sweep and mop the floor and wash the dishes. Only one Aunty that I work with allows me to use the toilet in her house. Otherwise, I either wait till I go home to use the loo, or I relieve myself in one of the parks.” Both the women’s body language and embarrassed smiles suggest that to them, the topic of using toilets is evidently too private to be discussed openly.
Preeti and Meena’s stories are not unusual in India. According to Anita Juneja, a member of the National Platform for Domestic Workers, which is a registered union for domestic workers based in Delhi, the practice of denying domestic workers access to toilets is prevalent across a majority of households in India. She says, “The mindset in the society is that the toilet is the owner’s ‘private’ space, which is neater and cleaner than [the workers working there]. The workers are allowed to clean toilets in homes, but not to use them.” Juneja says that at most, domestic workers have access to a separate toilet built for them outside the houses that they work in, particularly if they work full-time.
This is true for millions of domestic workers. According to Ashif Shaikh, social activist and the founder of the Jan Sahas Social Development Society, the tradition finds its roots in the caste-system that is prevalent to this day in many parts of India. He says, “In rural areas, bonded labour communities associated with domestic work aren’t just disallowed from using toilets, but cannot even have tea or food in the same utensils as their employers.”
The practice has spilt over to urban setups as well. In fact, a number of comments on Youth Ki Awaaz’s question on Facebook even cited lack of knowledge among domestic workers about how to use western toilets and the need for hygiene as reasons behind refusing toilet access to domestic workers. If anything, these comments only prove that the age-old prejudices and stereotypes run so deep, that employers don’t even realise that they, even today, are participating in discriminatory practices born out of the caste system.
Moreover, the system is so rigid that domestic workers such as Meena and Preeti are afraid to even ask their employers if they can use the toilets in their homes. Shaikh says, “Historically they have been part of a system that does not allow them access to the same resources as people from upper castes, which has become internalised to an extent that they do not realise their own rights. Further, they are also socially conditioned by the example set by their peers in the society.”
It is hardly surprising then, that access to toilets for domestic workers remains a huge issue in India.That banning domestic workers from using household toilets is seen as an easier solution than educating them about the correct way to use it indicates how deep in the Indian mindset the barriers created by the caste-system have become embedded. It is in the face of such attitude that domestic workers such as Meena and Preeti are forced to spend long hours without answering nature’s call, and show resistance towards using public facilities.
More than anything else, it highlights the fact that accessibility to toilets among India’s most vulnerable cannot be combatted simply by building more toilets. In a country where a budget of over INR 12 lakh crore is being allocated towards building toilets for better accessibility, equal importance needs to be given towards changing the mindset of people at large, educating the public on the best way to use them and impacting a change in the attitudes of the privileged in sharing resources. Only then can there be any success in eliminating the issue at its roots.
*Names changed upon request.