Why Do We Forget Gender-Specific Needs When Planning Cities?

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These days I travel in the roadways buses very frequently. Just the other day, I saw male underwear hanging on a rope right behind the driver’s seat. Problem? No problem! But now imagine if it were female underwear? Still no problem? I beg to differ. On this note, Happy Women’s Day!

At six in the morning, I took a bus to my workplace from my hometown. When the bus briefly stopped at a bus stand, the lady next to me turned to me and asked if I could keep an eye on her luggage.  She got down from the bus and came back within a minute. I gathered it was to attend to nature’s call.  I was curious as I had tried to locate a toilet on my route before but had been unsuccessful. While she was settling down, I asked, “Is there a toilet at this bus stand?”  She replied “nahi behen.. kya karte, muh andhere bus me baithe hain age aur lamba safar hai.” (No, I have started very early and the journey doesn’t end here, what to do). Her voice echoed my feelings. I usually avoid drinking water or any other fluid on a bus journey. I can risk getting dehydrated instead of having the uncontrollable urge to pee and not finding a toilet.

According to a survey conducted by ActionAid India, in 2016, on the condition of public toilets in Delhi, more than one in every three public toilets did not have separate provision for women. Representational image.

Another journey on another route, I was not feeling well so I took a few sips from my water bottle. But, as they say, “the fear smells you.” I badly needed to relieve myself. I thanked my luck when I finally saw a few public toilets at one of the city’s bus stands. The bus stopped and I jumped off and ran to the toilet. But I found locks hanging on all the doors except one. The one which was not locked was in such a horrible condition that I couldn’t decide anymore whether I needed to pee or throw up.

During my field visits, I often come across ‘sarkari shauchalayas’  in village houses, with the words ‘Izzat Ghar’ (translates to ‘house of honour’) written on them. I wonder why this basic human need has to be equated with izzat (honour), but if one were to interpret it as the need for privacy, why confine it to individual households? What about the ‘izzat’ in public places?

According to a survey conducted by ActionAid India, in 2016, on the condition of public toilets in Delhi, more than one in every three public toilets did not have separate provision for women. Out of the 229 toilets surveyed, the 149 toilets which did have some provisions for women had serious functional issues like cleanliness, lack of hygiene, and safety measures.

Why should the government not do more to ensure access to quality public services to all women?

More than 66% of the women’s toilets did not have a working flush, while 53% did not have running water facility and over 51% did not have the facility to wash hands. About 61% of toilets did not have soap to use, which adds to concerns regarding the quality of public sanitation available for women. It was also found that 28% of toilets did not have doors, while 45% of toilets did not have a mechanism to lock from inside. Over half of them did not have lights, neither inside the toilet nor in the outer premises. Moreover, 46% of toilets are unguarded–a condition that shows a lack of basic security provisions in the women’s public toilets.

As a society which is obsessed with defining which spaces women can occupy and what they can do in these spaces, it is quite remarkable that we completely forget about their needs when we plan our public spaces and cityscapes.

We could celebrate women’s day every year, feel proud of the advancement of a few, and be inspired and encouraged to come forward, get educated, work, contribute to the economy, but at what cost? Our health and safety? Why should this issue not be a concern for all of us, and not just for women? Why should the government not do more to ensure access to quality public services to all women? We need to ask ourselves these fundamental questions and address them if we really want the women in our country to be empowered, independent, and successful.

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