By Jugal Mody
“My ideal body would be just probably something like one eye, you probably only need one, a kind of sucker thing instead of teeth cause they just give you grief in the end and a long, long tube with my ass way over there so I don’t have to deal with it. That would be ideal.” –Dylan Moran, Monster
I have known women who wouldn’t even mention their need to pee. It was just something they silently needed to escape to and hope that no one would notice that ten minute span in which they were missing. In school and college, it was the little finger that saved everyone. Even when one verbalised the request, it was always done in a breathless fashion. It was as if it was reverence, as if we held the stream of yellow in the highest regard. As if the Prime Minister himself had called you to help the secret service crack some terrorist code but all you could tell the professor was, “I need to go to the bathroom.” The word bathroom would trail off and the teacher would even nod solemnly, afraid if he asked you to repeat what you just said, you might end up saying the word ‘bathroom’ too loud and then the class might either giggle loudly or be grossed out, following which they would break into a Sex Pistols song and trash the furniture taking all of humanity to hell. Some strict teachers and professors would even refuse to let a kid go. Of course, some kids, who were so over the whole drama around excretion, lied about needing to pee just to get out.
The women of Mumbai are unfortunately permanently stuck in that locked room trying to race out to a loo but the loos, like the ones in your full-bladder dreams, are always too far away, or the doors are locked or the loos have disappeared or have disgruntled guard dogs. These women need more than a little finger to get them to a place to pee. This is what I learnt when I recently encountered a campaign called The Right to Pee. I spoke to Sujata Khandekar and Supriya Sonar of CORO to ask them about the RTP campaign, the good that they have managed to do and the pitfalls they are facing in trying to make sure that the government is reminded that women are people too.
Sujata Khandekar of the NGO CORO said, “There are fewer or no public urinals and toilets for women because women, by traditional gender definitions, are supposed to stay at home. We’ve found that sabziwalis and other working women, have for years trained themselves to not urinate for eight to ten hours in a day. You know the kind of gynaecological, urinary tract and kidney problems that can cause? Worse if you are pregnant because that causes an increase in the pressure you are feeling.”
“Right To Pee is a CORO-initiated campaign,” said Supriya Sonar of CORO. “While Right To Pee is a name that the media has coined for the campaign, the original name was Mahilaansathi mofat, swacchha, surakshit aani saarvajanik mutaaryaanchya prashnaasaathi sanghathanaache sangathan (Rough translation: An organisation of organisations for free, sanitary, safe and public urinals for women). It was initiated on May 3, 2011 as a part of CORO’s public advocacy fellowship module for grassroots and community-based organisations, mostly small ones that have taken an initiative to bring about changes in their community. There are over 30 organisations actively involved with RTP, of which 18 are regularly in touch with CORO but volunteers from all 30 make sure they are present at the key meetings. At CORO, we believe grassroot collective leadership can make change happen. We train volunteers from these organisations who are working at interpersonal levels with the community, people ageing from the range of 18 to 50 years. There is no education criteria for these volunteers except that they show the signs of potential grassroot leaders in them. Right To Pee united various organisations who have all been working on various other issues like education and housing. None of them were working on this issue in particular so we have united all of them under this one umbrella campaign.”
“BMC has an overall budget of Rs 27,578 crore of which Rs 514 crore has been allocated for sanitation. The Right To Pee campaign is demanding 16.5% of the sanitation budget for right to pee. 16.5% in a way that each of the 27 wards in Mumbai gets 100 women toilet blocks (including urinals) – each of which costs approximately Rs 3 lakhs. The Right To Pee campaigners filed an RTI to get the following numbers from BMC about 24 wards in Mumbai: 2849 urinals for men and none for women.” Sonar continues. She is also quick to add that Right To Pee is not a campaign that is against the BMC. They are figuring out a way to work with them. “In our experience, we have learnt that it is not that the BMC does not want to help women. There is just a general lack of political will. The Chairperson of the BMC standing committee had promised us Rs 37 crores 2 years ago towards building of toilet blocks for women. But after that they have never endorsed that again. We had suggested 150 spaces where the BMC could build toilet blocks for women but they just responded with excuses on why they couldn’t use even one of those 150 spaces. If they really wanted to, they could’ve figured a way around the reasons that came in their way. This is just a systemic issue due to overall gender insensitivity in our society and RTP is working hard to influence the machinery from within with its efforts. The ironic part is that most of our demands have already been passed by the BMC in a September 2011 circular. It is just the implementation that has been a problem. People, individuals are refusing to see how it is a violation of a woman’s basic human rights, of her basic constitutional rights to dignity and privacy.”
“The one big victory on our side has been getting a separate gender budget allocation in the BMC’s budget this year. We have managed to get changes made in the State Women’s Policy to include a policy that dictates that all toilets need to include women’s urinals. These may seem small but they are big wins because getting administrations to change policies is always the most difficult part. Once the change is in, it is easier to push for expanding the budget and other details.” Sonar continued to tell us about their first tangible victory. “The first model of the urinals for women will be started in the E-ward in Mumbai (Marine Lines) with the cooperation of the officer for the E-ward. Then based on that we will push for a scale up to build them across the city and the state.”
“Currently, the people involved with the campaign have mostly been activists and NGOs. We are looking to expanding beyond that. We are currently in talks with the Working Women’s Federation, employees of various banks and other institutions to take this issue outside of the NGO domain.” Khandekar added, “The one big goal we have for this year is to make sure that this issue of lack of toilets for women must be a part of the next 20 year plan (2014-2034) for the city when the townplanning policies are being made.”
While researching for this piece, I remembered some of the crazy stories that some women friends had shared with me over the years. So I emailed a few from Mumbai, asking them for their worst pee experiences – especially “ones that would’ve been a zillion times better if they just had access to a decent public toilet” and a few of them wrote back with some rather crazy stories — ones which reeked of fear and agony — so much for being one of the best cities in the country.
Urvashi Pant, 33, Media Professional
Every time I cross the washroom at CST to take the stairs, I wish I had a phlegm-blocked nasal passage instead. I don’t know if I’ll ever gather the courage to step inside a public loo, that too at a railway station. It may not be a fair assessment since I have never really stepped into that toilet, but if the smell is anything to go by, I don’t think I ever will. The big problem, I feel, is that even if we have public toilets, how clean are they really? In most situations, holding my pee at the cost of getting kidney stones seems like the safer option.
Rochelle Potkar, 34, Fiction Writer
In Mumbai’s or India’s public space, I have just trained my gullet to sip less water, my bladder to hold optimum fluid as much as I have trained my elbows to shield my breasts, my ears to turn deaf to cat calls, my gaze to look away from winks and ugly gestures.
Suniti Joshi, 58, Interior Designer
I had been looking for a toilet for quite some time, and hadn’t spotted one yet. No malls in sight, no smart coffee shops. I was by now ready to settle for any Sulabh where you pay a rupee to use a toilet with no water, no latch on the doors and often – no doors. Home seemed far, far away. I wasn’t sure I’d have lasted for 2 hours in my present condition. Adult diapers seemed like a good idea suddenly. I was wondering if I could just ring a doorbell and request the lady of the house the use of her toilets, when I suddenly remembered that a friend from college lived in one of the buildings down the lane in the Vakola area. I had visited her house only once since her marriage and that had been ages ago. Could I barge in after ignoring her for over a decade? Yes I could! We had been very close during our college days. She owed me one, and this was the day she would be able to pay it off. Finding the house took surprisingly little time. The emergency must have sharpened my senses, but I remembered every landmark, every small detail of the lane as I zeroed in on her apartment. I was on complete auto pilot.
She opened the door, decked in brocade. I couldn’t say who was more surprised, she or me. She was genuinely happy to see me. She screamed, “You remembered!” And pulled me into a hug. I was surrounded by equally well-dressed people, smiling at us. My brain was adjusting to the new situation, feeling out of place. Apparently I had landed at her place on her 10th wedding anniversary puja. There was a round of introductions where various single men were introduced with a wink. Her mom offered me a cold drink. I was wondering how soon could I make a dash for the bathroom. I could even see the bathroom door. But before I could reach it, an ancient uncle ambled in. “Now he will be in for at least an hour!” Remarked his fond wife. I was having trouble breathing now. Finally I took my friend aside and asked her if there was a second bathroom. I saw the comprehension on her face. “So that’s why you are here?” She didn’t say anything out loud thankfully. She showed me the toilet in the master bedroom. I rushed in for a toe curling experience. For a few minutes I just sat there savouring the feeling. I felt that the big O is rather overrated. Try finding a loo after holding it in for six hours!
Rashmi Deshpande, 37, Media Professional
This female taxi driver (unfortunately, I can’t remember her name or the company she worked for), I was talking to, told me she has a few set restaurants along the routes she usually takes. She uses the loos there. If it’s an unknown route, she has to look for public toilets, which are not very clean. If it’s at night, she avoids going to the public toilets because she doesn’t always feel safe. So very often, she is driving with a full bladder. “Badaa accident hogaa, toh taxi aag se bach jayegi, kyun ke geeli cheezon ko aag nahin lagti,” she laughed.
I had a school friend whose mom was always made fun of because she stank of pee. She had incontinence. It’s a major problem, especially after delivery, and no one wants to talk about it. A couple of years ago, I worked on a paper for my college, ‘Next Stop, Dharavi!’ I was to speak to women in the slums as a part of the paper. Did you know they have to get up extremely early, like 4AM, to stand in line and get there before the men wake up?
Here is what I ask of you: Do you have any pee stories (that’s what most of the women on that email thread started calling them) from your city? If yes, then please send it to fingerzine (at) gmail (dot) com. The Finger would like to run yet another compilation of these stories to increase awareness around the issue and to kill the taboo around the subject.
(Image credit: Jenny Downing, Flickr)