Fighting for Potty Parity and the Right to Pee

You’ve got a lavender-scented bathroom down your hall, a relatively clean bathroom at work, and you can be reasonably sure that that dodgy gas-station will have somewhere for you to go if you drank one cup of coffee too many before you left the office. What we in the West often fail to realize is that this pleasing bathroom security is a remarkable luxury in many parts of the world where bathrooms are not the norm—and women are especially affected by this inequality.

Now so-called “potty parity” has hit the international agenda, and people world-wide are trying to figure out how best to address this very basic problem.

Women in developing countries face unique challenges when they realize they have to pee, challenges women are often uncomfortable discussing in public. In the dirt-poor and vast slums of Mumbai and Delhi, women find themselves curtailed geographically by access to a public bathroom or somewhere they can safely relieve themselves. If they do need to use a public bathroom – of which there are few in India with women’s facilities – they are often forced to pay for the privilege. This can be quite a lot of money in a nation where average income barely tops $2 a day. Home bathrooms aren’t a particularly viable option either: more than half of Indian households have no toilet, according to a 2011 census. And in the Indian cities of today, where women are going off to work and farther away from home in ever-increasing numbers, the problem is likely to only worsen.

Women are also forced to deal with the threat of rape, mockery, and sexual harassment if they must visit a public – and often male-controlled – restroom in the evening hours, meaning that many women attempt to drink as little as possible at certain parts of the day. Holding it in for hours a day isn’t just uncomfortable. It can also lead to serious health problems, including bacterial infections, loss of bladder control, and other unpleasant conditions. Urban Indian women with jobs in bathroom-deserts often find themselves carrying plastic bags to relieve themselves in, which are delicately called “flying toilets” – a disturbing proposal indeed in a relatively public area with a high risk of sexual harassment from men. Lack of access to a private bathroom of some kind is even worse for menstruating women, who face extreme social embarrassment and potentially dangerous hygiene problems if they can’t find a facility.

Toilets are also a major factor in getting girls and young women to go to school and stay there. Many schools in the developing world fail to provide adequate toilet facilities for girls, and the profound social embarrassment and personal inconvenience this breeds—especially for menstruating teenagers, as any woman can attest—often causes girls to drop out entirely in the poorest countries. UNICEF found that one in ten African girls miss classes or even drop out due to hygiene problems related to their period, while 20% of pubescent girls in developing countries are absent for at least part of the year for the same reasons. Once schools build bathrooms, the changes in girl’s attendance are often remarkable.  A Tanzania school saw an almost 100% increase in girls attendance after building more female-only bathrooms. 

All this inconvenience is much less of a factor for men in India and elsewhere in the developing world, who are able to leisurely relieve themselves against just about any standing structure without much fear of social censure – and the odiferous sanitation problems constant male public-peeing cause are also a subject of concern. Men often monopolize public bathrooms in India and usually serve as attendants as well, alienating women, forcing them to pay to urinate despite laws dictating otherwise, and making them feel uncomfortable in the few public restrooms they can use.  Indian women have finally had enough of this glaring bathroom inequality, and are beginning to fight back with high-octane potty parity campaigns centered on major urban areas. The widely-publicized “Right to Pee” campaign, spearheaded by 35 NGOs, hopes to make free public bathrooms with changing rooms and sanitary towel vending machines the norm instead of the exception. 

Public bathroom equality has proved a major issue in other Asian nations, including South Korea and China, where women have successfully petitioned for women’s bathroom parity. Earlier this year, Chinese female students in Guangzhou streamed into men’s toilets in a controversial “Occupy the Toilet” movement, calling for a 1:2 bathroom stall ratio for men and women nationwide. The movement blew up on Chinese social media networks and successfully made many men profoundly uncomfortable: the Chinese government has agreed to take serious steps to address the bathroom equality problem. Hong Kong and Taiwan have already passed laws dictating that more space be devoted to women’s toilets than to those devoted to men, while 21 US states have passed “potty parity” legislation. 

It’s worth pointing out that women calling for a 1:2 bathroom stall ratio for men and women are being entirely logical, male-rights activists complaints aside. Exactly equal numbers of bathrooms for men and women fail to address simple biological reality: women have to use bathroom stalls much more often, they are more often responsible for taking care of children, and they often have to spend more time in the bathroom when they are there thanks to their anatomy. All this translates into a longer average stay in the bathroom, and considerably longer wait-times in busy areas – and contrary to popular belief, this actually isn’t because all women are frittering away their time gossiping and doing their nails.

The upside of bathroom equality movements for the development-minded is that this is one of those rare problem that is actually relatively simple to fix: build more public bathrooms, in more places, for more women, and make sure that they are  both safe and relatively clean. Access to a vending machine for sanitary napkins would be a nice touch as well. The creation of more free bathrooms – and they need not be fancy – will provide millions of women with more geographic and economic mobility, better health, and more personal safety. This is not rocket science, and it isn’t intrinsically embarrassing or shameful, either. Instead, bathroom equality is the simple pursuit of access to a very real, and very important right.