Dhaka toilet terror
Allow Anita Amreen, a staff reporter for the Dhaka Tribune, to paint a picture for you of what it’s like to use a nicer public washroom in her city:
“What a relief it was to find a muddy, wet floor that wasn’t splattered with human feces. Inadequate lighting made it difficult to make out what seemed like a hole in the ground in the first cubicle. Dark, dingy and full of broken bits from the door, the squat toilet was unusable. However, the other two revealed one squat toilet, and another with a urinal, clean yet yellow with constant use. A steady stream of water pooled out of a pipe at the centre of the floor, making it difficult to maneuver.”
Considering Dhaka’s large population size as well as the number of people who commute there to work during the day, it has shockingly few public washrooms. Several buildings that were erected by The Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) to serve as public washrooms are currently unused or unusable. As writer and anthropologist Tahmima Anam explains, “the contractors often use the buildings for selling drinking water or washing cars. Sometimes, the space is rented out for people to sleep in. Some offered no sanitary facilities whatsoever.”
In her 2015 op-ed for The New York Times Anam wrote, “If I could, I would write a book called “Where to Pee in Bangladesh.” It would be a useful but very short book. It would tell you, for instance, that in our capital city, there are 67 public toilets for over 15 million residents. And of those 67, many have no running water or electricity. According to a 2011 study, only five are fully functional.”
It’s worth noting that women face greater difficulty than men in finding public washrooms. The same reporter for The Dhaka Tribune who describes her “relief” at finding a public washroom without feces on the floor notes another barrier for women. At one of the washrooms she visits she learns that the “toilet manager” charges women more than men to use the facilities. His reasoning is that women “require more” than men. He suggests, for instance, that women are fussier about the cleanliness of public washrooms. Reporting by The Dhaka Mirror also indicates that of the roughly 100 toilets DCC built in the past decade most did not have spaces for women.
Also worth noting is the fact that Dhaka South City Corporation Mayor Sayeed Khokon has put forth a plan to build 100 additional public washrooms in the city by 2018. Fashion retailer H&M has actually partnered with the city, as well as the NGO WaterAid, to help fund this endeavour. The mayor has been present at the “inauguration” of some of these washrooms at public events. Andrés Hueso, WaterAid’s Senior Policy Analyst, argues that one reason there is sometimes not enough political will to improve public sanitation is that many officials running for office simply do not want to be “associated with toilets” resulting in “inadequate financing, a lack of capacity and weak institutional arrangements.”
For this reason, as odd as these images of washroom inaugurations may seem they are also heartening. For Mayor Khokon to prioritise access to public washrooms in the way that he has is vital. Taboos that prevent us from openly discussing the necessity of safe and accessible washroom facilities ultimately do us no good.
Public sanitation is of course an issue in many countries not simply Bangladesh. According to the UN “2.4 billion people do not have adequate sanitation” and “1 billion people still defecate in the open.” (http://www.un.org/en/events/toiletday/) Again the problem is compounded for women. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon notes, one third of women globally do not have access to safe washrooms. A lack of access to safe and hygienic facilities negatively affects women specifically in two ways: women and children are more vulnerable to the risk of disease and malnutrition that inadequate sanitation can cause and women are also likelier to be targets of sexual assault or harassment when using public washrooms. Ban Ki-moon has argued forcefully that we as a society have a “moral imperative” to correct this issue. (https://widerimage.reuters.com/story/around-the-world-in-45-toilets)
Let us not allow ourselves then to be held back by the same taboos that can stifle sanitation initiatives in countries that need them most. November 19th marks World Toilet Day, a day created by the UN to draw attention to the importance of sanitation. This year’s theme is “Toilets and Jobs.” (http://www.everywomaneverychild.org/news-events/events/1270-world-toilet-day) Imagine how your professional life would be altered by the absence of safe public washrooms in the city in which you work. Imagine how your personal life would be affected. From these imaginings try to build empathy for the 2.4 billion human beings who are forced to do without that which you take for granted every day.