Swachhta Will Be A Dream If We Don’t Flush Out The Inequality In India’s Public Toilets

by | Apr 27, 2022

You’ve been running errands for the last two hours in your city’s local market area, and now feel the need to pee. Home is a 45-minute metro ride away, and you can’t wait for that long. But you see the signboards for a public toilet within walking distance. What do you do? This decision becomes complicated for members of the transgender community. Public toilets in India today present you with two options: the women’s toilets or the men’s toilets. But these toilets are accessible primarily to cisgender men and women.

“I’ve been stared down, checked out, questioned, and kicked out of toilets,” said Krishna, a trans man from Chennai. Using women’s toilets is an overwhelmingly dysphoric experience for him. “I have ended up crying every time.” And even if they choose to use a women’s toilet, they know they stand out. “I am visibly trans-masculine, so I get looked at weirdly a lot or kicked out of “women’s” toilets,” they explained.

And while using the men’s toilets can be a gender-euphoric experience for him, he fundamentally feels unsafe in them because of “traumatic experiences in the past”.

Sumi Das, a trans woman and community organizer in Cooch Behar, West Bengal, echoes similar challenges. When I use a women’s toilet, I get a lot of weird, lingering stares,” she says. She considers herself lucky that she hasn’t experienced any harassment in public toilets but knows that it is the norm for many in the community. She is shielded, at least in part, because she is able to pass as a ciswoman.

“The most amount of difficulty in accessing public toilets for trans-feminine people comes from trying to use men’s toilets. While they might not pass as women–they don’t have augmented breasts, long hair or feminine clothing or might have facial hair–their behaviour, their conduct, their ways of walking even are different from cis men. There is always a fear of being clocked in men’s bathrooms because harassment is a real possibility.”

Various studies and reports in the past have documented that trans folks are vulnerable to harassment and violence in public places like toilets. Transgender folks have to live with this fear.

Simran is a hijra guru in Hyderabad’s Badi Haveli and has had 120 chelas. From her vast experience as a mentor to many young hijras, she explained, “They are already scared. They’re always thinking: “If I go to this restroom, what problem will they cause? What will they do to me? What will they say if they see me?” They are aware of the stigma, its fear has been internalised.

Looking For Dignity In The Bathroom Debate

In 2014, the Supreme Court legally recognised the third gender and their fundamental rights of privacy, equality, non-discrimination and dignity as enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The landmark judgment recognised the importance of accessible and dignified bathrooms, directing central and state governments to build separate toilets for transgender people.

Even the contestable Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 acknowledges that denying trans folks access to a service or facility that is otherwise customarily available to the general public is discriminatory.

A gender-neutral sign is posted outside a bathroom in Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

But apart from a handful of city-specific initiatives like in Varanasi and Bhopal, by and large, public toilets for transgender people are missing. This is not to say that public toilets themselves are missing–in fact, the Urban Swachh Bharat Mission surpassed its goal of constructing 5+ lakh public and community toilets by 122%, as reported on the SBM-U dashboard in February 2022.

For a country that has been touting its speedy elimination of open defecation since 2014, it is jarring to hear that, even today, transgender folks prefer to urinate in public areas like “behind paan stalls or stationery buses”, as shared by Simran.

Policy Matters

What does a core sanitation policy like the Swachh Bharat Mission have to say about the issue? The operational guidelines are not gender-neutral, paying close attention to the sanitary needs of women and designing toilets to solve constraints women often face in accessing public toilets. But this gender sensitivity does not extend to non-cis-gendered people.

These guidelines only recommend that toilets for trans folks are constructed in transit areas or in community spaces where there is a high residential population without necessary access to individual household toilets. The transgender unit is ‘optional’ for event-linked, institutional or public space toilets. The guidelines essentially leave it up to the respective municipal authority to decide whether there is any demand for these facilities, on the basis of Census population statistics or other surveys.

Simran says that none of the public toilets near the haveli she is a part of in Hyderabad is trans-inclusive. Clearly, there is a “population-based need” that isn’t being met. But she said that this logic is also flawed. “There is no one place where all transgender folks gather. Like the general public, we occupy public places like bus stations, train stations, parking lots, exhibition grounds, markets. Just like the general public needs to urinate, we do too–it is natural,” she explains.

When the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NMDC) announced its 2021-22 budget, it patted itself on the back for the construction of one toilet exclusively for people who identify with the third gender in Shastri Bhawan–but said that more shall be constructed on the basis of “feasibility”. But building truly inclusive public spaces means ditching the language of “feasibility” and constructing trans-inclusive units.

What Does the Trans Community Want?

A third, separate toilet is necessary because we have our own identity and our own existence. Those who identify with the third gender or don’t identify with the gender binary don’t want to use male or female toilets., said Sumi. Simran agreed, recommending that cities construct the third unit alongside male and female toilets instead of creating independent and individual transgender toilets. This will make them easier to find and make them less likely to be misused, either by harassers or those soliciting sex in public.

Krishna agreed, stating that a third, gender-inclusive bathroom would be a safe space and a step towards “degendering bathrooms”. He also pointed out the need for inclusive design in these spaces–having both urinals and stalls as well as dustbins and menstrual healthcare products, for example. All three said that awareness-building was crucial, not just putting up the infrastructure of toilets. People, with time, have become more understanding of the LGBTQ+ community, especially if you run awareness programs on TV advertisements with hijras like me, people will understand the issue and our needs,” said Simran.

Krishna suggested that public signages could be a good first step in validating–not just “allowing” by passing an Inclusivity circular–that men’s and women’s bathrooms are trans-friendly, “so that cis people can adjust to seeing trans folks of their same gender in the bathroom that affirms them.

Given that bathroom attendants are the primary gatekeepers, Sumi suggested that they receive sensitization and awareness training. She said, The rights of transgender folks are also important–transwomen and men should be allowed to access women and men’s toilets just like cis people, without harassment.

This issue is not new. Different organisers in the transgender community have, for years now, been talking about accessible and inclusive public spaces for trans people. In the last fifteen years, Sumi herself has repeatedly spoken to district magistrates and other government officials in West Bengal about public toilets for trans folks in her work as a community organiser. But there is inertia.

The Urban Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0 will be implemented with a total financial allocation of over Rs. 1.41 lakh crores over a period of 5 years from 2021-2026. We need to strive to ensure that our mission to ‘Clean India’ is built on inclusive infrastructure, increased awareness and dignity for all.

“I really think at the end of the day it should boil down to two things: everyone’s gotta go, and everyone’s gotta feel safe. You know?”

– Krishna

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