My “college” (if it can even be addressed as such), is a two-storey building situated in the middle of a school compound. It’s fairly recent – only two years old and with campus under construction. We, the students, have all the difficulties associated with such a college including schoolchildren screaming bloody murder outside when we have our semester exams and looking wistful whenever one of our friends talks about hanging out on their huge campus. Occasionally, when one of us dares to pipe up and ask when the college campus is going to be completed we are treated to a lecture on the virtues of patience and the sanctity of struggle in human life. If more than one person asks, the tone abruptly changes to one of disdain, telling us that if we wanted good facilities we would have studied and gotten into better colleges then.
One of the main issues that came up recently was that of the girls’ bathroom – more accurately, the girls bath-sheds – which showed an even greater lack of facilities than usual at our college and believe me, that shit is bad. The bathrooms have no running water, no electricity, and minimal cleaning. Every time you step in one and close the door you are immediately plunged into horror-movie darkness which means that every bathroom venture for most of the girls is an exercise in blind fumbling and awkward adjusting; you just hope and pray that everything is positioned correctly and there are no, um, overflows which is a viable risk in Indian-style toilets. Not that you can see it but you can certainly smell it. Many girls go to the toilets in pairs or groups, which I never understood – I actually assumed it was so one person could stand outside and rescue the other if she fell into the toilet or slipped.
Having grown up abroad I understand that maybe my reaction is a standard one for someone who has grown up in privileged surroundings. Most of my classmates are used to such conditions and rarely complain even when they have to visit that damn place on their periods. If this is the state of our bathroom I can only wonder what the state of the boys toilet is…
Nevertheless, things got really bad so the leaders of the classes got together to request the administration to install a couple of lightbulbs. We even got together to write a nicely worded request with the signature of girls who supported the move. The request was sent in the hands of our bravest emissaries (chosen for their exceptional capability to withstand threats and yelling) to the administrator.
“He said putting up a lightbulb wasn’t possible but if we wanted, he could have the roof removed and replaced with transparent sheeting,” one of the girls told me later.
Time for a little lesson on our country’s hygiene stats: a report published by the Times of India revealed that 23% of girls dropped out of school thanks to lack of access to basic sanitary facilities (read: functioning toilets). Millions of people defecate in the open or use sub-standard facilities which are bad for hygiene and worse for the environment. The most horrifying thing, however, is the fact that many girls and women with little to no access to bathrooms are forced to sneak around at night to relieve themselves which puts them at risk of accidents, attacks from wild animals and worst of all, rape and harassment (including voyeurism because apparently watching a woman pee is super sexy).
Don’t believe me? In 2014, two teenage girls from Katra, UP, were found raped and murdered after they had gone out at night to relieve themselves. It gets worse: toilets and changing rooms have become increasingly unsafe thanks to the advent of spycams. In Mumbai, a woman sold her mangalsutra to pay for a toilet in her house after her in-laws refused to so. The problem is so widespread that it was one of the focuses of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” campaign.
It’s not just girls who suffer from lack of resources but boys too. Although boys toilets are more common than girls, many schools do not have functioning bathrooms for either sex. Access to sanitation is a basic human right and men deserve to have working bathrooms too so that they can relieve themselves with dignity. Unfortunately, like the boys in my college (whose bathroom is in the same condition), many other boys have to use toilets that are neglected because well, they’re for boys, they’re tough and manly and thanks to biology they have an easier way to relieve themselves. It’s funny how the patriarchal mindset cuts both ways.
You might be thinking that this entire article is an overreaction to a situation which is completely different. I am in Kerala which has better facilities and is more developed than more northern states. I am also in a position where I am privileged enough to have access to proper toilets and sanitation which many poorer girls cannot afford. So why am I sitting here whining about something as minor as transparent roofing sheets?
The attitude of the administration towards our request clearly reflects the larger prevailing attitude towards allocation of resources that would benefit women and children. It isn’t at the top of the list, only on the top paragraph of political speeches. This whole roofing sheet business was so hilariously awful that everyone – girls and guys – were up in arms against it (some even asked if it was so that the administrator could have a peek himself).
Few people realise how much privacy matters to someone especially in matters of the body. What privacy or safety can be assured to the girls who use such a toilet? If something happens to a girl, who will be responsible? If the college can’t be bothered about something as small as a lightbulb then what on God’s green earth are they going to do about harassment? I’m glad that we don’t have to use an open space or a pit but that doesn’t mean that we have to shut up and accept substandard conditions either. I’m not ashamed of my biology. I need to urinate, I need to defecate and I bleed for seven days every month which requires a little extra in terms of toilet facilities.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of open space architecture; just not when I’m squatting over a toilet.
Posted from my blog@Wordpress and edited for clarity and anonymity.