By Almas Shamim

Oh, how we take them for granted! But, like all things taken for granted, toilets, or rather a lack of them, come back with a vengeance too strong for our bowels and bladders to bear.

In two isolated incidents, two girls died and both their deaths had some relation with toilets. The first is the case of an autistic girl in the UK, who had a phobia of toilets and ended up suffering a heart attack after eight weeks of constipation, which ultimately killed her. The second incident is nearer to us- in Jharkhand- where a young girl committed suicide after her parents refused to construct a toilet at home because they were saving money for her marriage. This tragic suicide comes along with a chain of similar demands for toilets by young girls who refuse to get married or live with their husbands until they are provided with a toilet at home.

While both these situations may be alien to us (though not all of us!), the need for functional toilets in the public domain is no less. How many times have we been to toilets that have no water? Or toilets where the flush doesn’t work, thereby creating a flood of human waste? There are toilets with no buckets, no light and even no doors. And this I speak only of the toilets that are present in the official buildings, schools and colleges. Another big question would be a complete absence of government constructed toilets along long stretches of roads. (And then we ask men to stop urinating in the open? Seriously?) 

 The fact remains that an absence of functional toilets is an attack on human dignity and health. Every person should be able to attend the call of nature in a place which is clean, hygienic and safe. No person should have to ‘hold’ a pee or a poop due to the lack of a proper toilet.

Hundreds of girls do not go to schools and colleges only because their schools and colleges do not have functional toilets, and they, unlike boys, have not been given the freedom to zip down and pee in the open. Many more girls miss school during their menstruation because there is no proper place in the school for disposing their pads or there is no water to clean up. The placement of toilets is another issue- is the toilet in a place which is too secluded and thereby unsafe, or is it out in the open making it uncomfortable for many to use? Can the doors of the toilets be latched closed from inside? Are there dustbins? Are they cleaned regularly?

Many women (including me) refrain from drinking water while travelling because of the silly yet painful reason that there just aren’t enough toilets where a woman can go and relieve herself. Men can always find a way around it, even if in uncivilized ways, because, after all, they are men.

And I just want to remind you that we have not even touched the complexity of accommodating the third gender (recognized as legal in India) in our male-female binary toilets. That should be a topic for another place, another time.

The problem definitely needs to be addressed by constructing more toilets but it doesn’t end there. These toilets also need to be maintained to keep them hygienic and safe. So the next time there is an appraisal or a feedback at your offices, schools- do not forget to bring up any glitch that you have faced. And if you are in a position to make any changes to the toilets in your institution, try to make your toilets as ‘friendly’ as possible- with messages requesting (instructing) proper use, with packets for disposing sanitary pads, and maybe even condoms! 

Leaving you with a few WHO figures:

India has 626 million people who practice open defecation, more than twice the number of the next 18 countries combined. This number accounts for 90 per cent of the 692 million people in South Asia who practice open defecation and 59 per cent of the 1.1 billion people in the world who practice open defecation. 

Almas Shamim is a public health specialist with a great interest in sexual and reproductive health and rights, and feminism among Muslim women. She currently works for an international humanitarian aid organization in New Delhi and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.