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Understanding Issues Involved in Toilet Access for Women

While insufficient sanitation facilities often get represented in statistics and are reported in the literature on urban infrastructure planning and contested urban spaces, what is often left out is the everyday practice and experience of going to dysfunctional toilets, particularly by women. By analysing the practices and problems associated with toilet use from a phenomenological perspective, this article aims to situate the issue in the everyday lives of women.

The “No Toilet, No Bride” campaign initiated by former union minister Jairam Ramesh, now a CongressMP (Member of Parliament), the “Toilets First, Temples Later” slogan raised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) “Take the Poo to the Loo” drive indicate concerted efforts by the government and non-governmental organisations (NGO) to raise the issue of the lack of functional toilets in India. The problem of inadequate access to toilets assumes a serious dimension when it comes to the immense difficulties faced by women who have to make do with both inadequate and dysfunctional toilets in places not safe all the time. This translates directly into hazardous outcomes such as stunted growth, and diarrhoeal and urinary tract infections, among other chronic illnesses (Spears and Lamba 2013). Another important concern is the increasing number of incidents of sexual assault and violence on women in the vicinity of public toilets or fields used for open defecation.

This article seeks to situate the problem of toilet access for women in the urban slums of Delhi. While some lower-income settlements have public toilets, many others depend on open fields. Even where public toilets are available, the ratio of people to toilets is so lopsided that it thwarts the possibility of adequate toilet access for the majority. While the sight of men urinating against walls is quite usual in cities such as Delhi, there is silence about how women manage in their everyday lives with inadequate and dysfunctional sanitation facilities. This article aims to document and analyse the experiences and everyday practices women in lower-income settlements adopt to cope with the lack of functional toilets. By analysing the practices and problems associated with toilet use from a phenomenological perspective, this article aims to situate it in the everyday lives of women, in their day-to-day lived experiences in their neighbourhoods, workspaces and cities.

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