Having spent nearly 21 years of my life in urban settings, I’ve encountered various challenges like crowded streets, population density, subpar living conditions, high living costs, and fierce competition. Among these challenges, the unhygienic state of public toilets often caught my attention often in Kashmir (my home state) but also when I was studying in Delhi.
I tried to avoid using public restrooms as much as possible. However, there were times when I needed to use one. The whole experience was so bad that even the thought of it would give me shivers. With time I became used to controlling my urge to pee. But I never truly appreciated the luxury of having a functional toilet within a half a kilometer radius. Especially in institutional and public spaces such as schools, offices, hospitals, shopping malls, airports, and railway stations.
Venturing into low-population hilly areas in Kashmir for occasional trips did give me a glimpse of life without easily accessible and clean public restrooms. But I hadn’t realized that the probability of you finding a functional toilet in case of an emergency in public schools specially in rural areas, will be an uncommon sight. The 13th Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2019 reveals that 22.8% of schools in rural areas have unusable toilets, despite progress in toilet construction through the government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. The survey covers 600,000 children in 16,000 villages and 560 rural districts annually, with 90% of them in the age group of 3-16.
My Experience In Rural Bihar
During my first month as an India Fellow in the Kuchaikote block of Gopalganj district in Bihar is when the gravity of the situation hit me. It was just another day in a nearby village. We were conducting a session at a government school. In the middle of the day, I needed to use a toilet. But the nearest one was locked and unusable. I kept looking for another one but didn’t find it.
Upon my request, the headmaster opened the locked toilet in school premises, but the condition was so bad that I preferred to sit through the session and had to wait to reach back our office. The school toilet had spider webs everywhere, it was stinking badly, was dirty, and had no water. So I sat through the session and could relieve myself only after reaching back to our field office.
This small but significant incident stayed with me, igniting my curiosity on the situation to dig deeper. Yet, what transpired on that seemingly ordinary day unveiled a disconcerting reality – a reality that resonates across numerous public schools in rural India – the glaring lack of properly functional toilet facilities.
I found myself grappling with a dilemma. While I had the option to return to the office to address my needs, what about the students who spent their entire day in these premises? What about young girls navigating their monthly cycles? Or even teachers, what would they be doing. It has been a year since that incident, but I still face the same challenge every time I’m on field.
My inquiry into this seemingly ordinary incident opened doors to a complex web of challenges. Conversations with teachers and students revealed that the locked toilet was not an anomaly but rather a common sight. Functional toilet facilities were rare, and even when they were present, they often lacked water and proper maintenance. I couldn’t understand why. Why were the schools struggling to provide such a basic facility? How do the children manage their needs?
Why Are Functional Toilets So Scarce?
I talked to 15 children from different age groups studying in class one to ten, across 12 government schools where we work. They were initially hesitant to share details, so I decided to approach the conversation differently by first sharing about my experience written above. They were giggling and shying away from talking about toilets as people usually don’t talk about it here. But they eventually opened up.
Where do you go in a similar situation?
We are not able to use the toilets constructed in schools since they are always locked. We go home or go out in the open.
Why are they locked?
They are unclean, and the teacher tells us that no one cleans them. Anyway it stinks, so we prefer not to use it. There is no water supply and we have to get water from the hand pump.
“Will you share this with the head master? Please don’t tell him we complained about it, he will be angry”, a class 5 student said. Upon my reassurance he shared “If we demand to open it, he asks us to clean the toilets. It’s extremely unhygienic, we feel like vomiting afterwards”.
“We have now become used to not having a toilet around, even the locks on toilet doors have rusted. They don’t open anymore. We can go to our home or control the urge.”
A young girl shared, “We don’t feel the need to go because there isn’t any toilet around or a safe place to use in the open. In emergency, we have to miss the school and stay at home.”
Do you feel the need for a functional toilet?
“Khule mein hojata hai” (We manage in the open), a young boy said while giggling.
“Yes, but can there really be separate toilets for us?” a young girl asked.
“Yes, I think there should be separate toilets for girls and boys and another one for teachers so that they don’t have to wait in line with students”, another girl added.
“If there is no water supply, there is no point using it. Open areas are much better.”
“They are too small, it’s suffocating, especially with the bad smell.”
It was intriguing to note that, although children’s responses varied, there were discernible patterns. Younger students in classes one to three were more accepting of the conditions, whereas their counterparts in senior classed expressed deep concern about the issue due to severe consequences they faced.
Interestingly, when it came to discussing this matter with girls, there was an initial reluctance to share their experiences. But once they opened up, they revealed a startling reality of how they had become accustomed to controlling their pee and even missing school during their menstrual cycles.
This made me think why demanding access to a functional toilet was not a pressing issue for students. Had this become a norm?
From our conversations, a multitude of reasons emerged, such as negligence by school administration, the notion of toilets not being a necessity, infrastructural defects, lack of cleanliness, unhygienic conditions, inadequate funding, unawareness about hygiene, and fear among children to demand anything. All these contribute to the dire state of toilet facilities. Sanitation takes a backseat!
Impact on Education
The situation in the schools of Kuchaikote block is not unique; it mirrors a broader problem across India. And it extend far beyond physical discomfort, leading to a significant impact on education. Imagine being a student, forced to choose between attending class and enduring unhygienic conditions. The lack of privacy and hygiene adversely affects attendance, particularly for adolescent girls, who often drop out due to these challenges.
In fact, 23 million girls in India reportedly drop out of school annually due to a lack of proper hygiene management facilities and information about menstrual hygiene (Dasra, 2019 report). According to the World Health Organization and UNICEF, nearly one-third of schools around the world still lack basic water, sanitation, and hygiene services.
Impact on Health
Unfortunately, most of the girls and women teachers shared the same story as mine. They too control the urge to pee till they find a place where they can relieve themselves freely. Discussing the sanitation needs of women has historically been considered taboo in many societies, and India is no exception. Women often require more frequent urination, particularly during their menstrual cycles. But a significant number of women hold their urine for extended periods, sometimes throughout the entire day due to the absence of proper toilet facilities.
This practice carries severe repercussions for women’s health, including potential issues with their kidneys, bladder, bacterial infections in the urinary tract, and overall bodily functions. Those who avoid consuming water or other liquids to prevent having to use the bathroom often become dehydrated.
There is hope. Initiatives from different corners of the country showcase innovative solutions. Community participation, awareness campaigns, and partnerships with local organizations have led to improvements in sanitation facilities in some areas. By learning from these stories and advocating for change, we can make a difference in many lives.
On 19th November 2016 (World Toilet Day), Action Aid launched the ‘Where to Pee’ campaign. Through this campaign, they demanded clean, safe, and working toilets for all, especially women. Activist Mumtaz Shaikh started the ‘Right to Pee’ campaign to advocate for free, clean, safe public urinals for women in Mumbai. It brings together 33 local NGOs working for better access and availability of urinals for women in the city.
Bhartiya Stree Shakti, while expressing a need for safe and clean public toilets for women, launched the ‘Ab Khule Mein Bandh’ campaign. About 400 women from Trichy were awarded by FICCI for exemplary work on urban sanitisation. These women belonging to various self-help groups came together to manage and maintain around 200 public toilets.
Even though the incident that triggered this exploration was a simple urge to use the toilet, its implications go beyond the discomfort. It opened my eyes to many things such as the interconnected challenges of education, sanitation, and development. It allowed me to take a step back from my daily life, see the privileges we often take for granted, and how the same thing can affect numerous lives to the point where we may start to normalise it.