Whether you call it the Ladies’ Room or the Loo, the Potty or the Powder Room, access to toilets is — worldwide — a woman’s issue.
In places with adequate, modern plumbing, it’s about demanding “potty parity.” What woman hasn’t known inconvenience and discomfort when waiting in crazy long lines at a public restroom, often with little kids in tow, trying to “hold it,” worrying over the first twinge of menstrual cramps or a crucial vote pending: women serving in the U.S. House of Representatives didn’t have a restroom of their own until 2011. Before that, they had to tinkle with the tourists in a room clear across Statuary Hall, far from the House Chamber.
In places without adequate sanitation, the lack of bathroom facilities can be a matter of life and death for women and children, and that’s no bathroom joke. An estimated 2.5 BILLION people (37% of the world’s population) have next to no place to do their business, which means squatting where they can and wading through puddles and all kinds of crap, in all kinds of weather, fending off snakes, bugs, and human predators.
“PEE-IN” PROTEST ON HARVARD YARD
Florynce “Flo” Kennedy (1916-2000), the radical feminist lawyer and Black Power activist who coined the motto “Don’t agonize, organize,” was known for her outrageous tactics in the fight against racism and sexism.
She understood the hardships faced by trailblazers with full bladders at Harvard University, where female students had to be excused from classes or exams to go in search of the rare toilet for women.
On June 7, 1973, Kennedy led women around Harvard Yard, chanting, “To pee or not to pee, that is the question.” Their numbers grew when they came to the steps of Lowell Hall, an old building with only one bathroom — for men.
Addressing the crowd, Kennedy explained that restricting bathrooms was a way to reinforce the superior-inferior relationship of different segments of a community, just as public bathrooms had been used to reinforced racial divisions for years in the South.
Several women stepped forward with glass jars and splashed bright yellow liquid on the steps. As the crowd cheered, Flo gave a raised fist gesture of protest and warned, “Unless Lowell Hall gets a room for women so that women taking exams don’t have to hold it in, run across the street, or waste time deciding whether to pee or not to pee, next year we will be back, doing the real thing!”
INDIA: “NO TOILET, NO BRIDE”
Around the world, women and girls head for streams, trees, fields, or bushes in the dim light of dawn and dusk, and, on top of all the inconvenience and unpleasantness that implies, risk sexual attack every time they have to pee. In India, an estimated 620 million people have one option: “open defecation” — answering the call of nature, quite literally, in nature. More people in India have cell phones than indoor toilets.
When Anita Narre got married in May, 2011, she walked out on her husband two days later, promising to come back when he built an indoor toilet for her. Her demand not only worked, but inspired a government sponsored “No Toilet, No Bride” campaign. Now, all across the country, there are signs and murals painted on the sides of buildings reading “NO TOILET, NO BRIDE.” Other murals show a woman squatting, looking anxiously over her shoulder at an approaching male, and dreaming of an indoor toilet.
Rape happens everywhere, but last year (May, 2014) two teenaged cousins in rural northern India, desiring nothing more than to relieve themselves before going to bed, went out and never came back. They were gang-raped, then strung up in a mango tree where neighbors found their bodies the next morning. Rape is common, but hanging dead girls’ bodies from mango trees is not. This crime shocked the nation and sparked protests across India, raising awareness about sexual assault and the basic need for easy access to safe toilets and privacy for women and girls.
KENYA: “FLYING TOILET” PROTEST
In October, 2014, protesters marched to the Kenyan Ministry of Health offices from the impoverished “informal settlement” known as Mukuru on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. They’d had enough of “flying toilets.”
“Flying toilets” are plastic bags full of urine and feces used by people without toilets. The bags are then hurled through the air. Sometimes, they bounce off tin roofs or walls, hit people, or collect along roadsides and train tracks, burst open and splatter excrement, which attracts flies or leaks into water systems. The cause of a train derailment on Kenyan tracks several years ago was determined to be an accumulation of “flying toilets.”
The Mukuru protesters, mostly women, waved signs and sang songs in the streets of Nairobi’s financial district, deliberately slowing traffic to protest the government’s slow action in providing sanitation facilities. Once at the Health Ministry office building, the women staged a sit-in. They wore headbands printed with the Swahili word for “togetherness.”
SOUTH AFRICA: “POO WARS”
Cape Town: The media have dubbed protests here the “poo wars.” Frustrated by failed promises to provide better sanitation services and unfazed by the threat of arrest, protesters in recent years have dumped bags of human waste inside government offices and thrown raw sewage at legislators.
Soweto: In June, 2014, police used teargas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters in this Johannesburg neighborhood, when they blocked a major road in Soweto and pulled down their pants to show their scorn. They’d inherited the “bucket system” from the apartheid (white rule) era. Although apartheid was officially discontinued in 1994, the people of Soweto are still using buckets for toilets, and they’ve had enough.
Chatsworth: In the Crossmoor settlement outside of this Durban suburb, angry residents have blocked traffic by setting tires on fire. One protester was photographed with a toilet seat around her head. Their demands were basic: toilets and water.
CHINA: WOMEN’S TOILET TAKEOVER
After being forced to “hold it” one time too many, Li Tingting, a university student, led a nonviolent action dubbed, “Occupy Men’s Toilets” in February, 2012, demanding more public toilets for women.
To protest the unfair ratio of male to female toilet stalls throughout Guangzhou, in south China, 20 women occupied a men’s restroom near a park. The women stayed only three minutes in each of a series of “occupations.” They apologized to the men and asked them, in solidarity, to hold their bladders for a few minutes.
A few days later, toilet access activists attempted to occupy men’s toilets in Beijing, near a bus terminal. They were reprimanded and detained by police, but the English-language edition of China Daily (a state paper) ran an article the next day with the headline: “TOILET OCCUPATION GROUP IS FLUSHED WITH SUCCESS,” congratulating the activists on highlighting a problem.
On November 19, 2014, “World Toilet Day” (yes, there really is a World Toilet Day, and, having researched this blog essay, I now understand why), Li and two dozen students and engineers petitioned the government, specifically calling for 2 women’s toilets for every 1 for men. They posted photos online of women holding signs that read “2:1.” When Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics Games, they’d used a ratio of 4-to-1 for the tourists.
TO GO DEEPER
“The Everyday Sexism of Women Waiting in Public Toilet Lines” by Soraya Chemaly, Time, January 5, 2015.
“Women in the House Get a Restroom” by Nancy McKeon, The Washington Post, July 28, 2011
“To Pee or Not to Pee, Sexism at Harvard” by Irene Davall, On the Issues Magazine, Summer, 1990.
“In India, Latrines Are Truly Life Savers” by Vivekananda Nemana and Ankita Rao, The New York Times, Nov. 13, 2014.
“Crossmoor Residents Blockade Road, Demand Water and Toilets” blog Shannon In South Africa.
“Nairobi’s Female Slum Dwellers March for Sanitation and Land Rights” by Mark Anderson, The Guardian, Oct. 29, 2014.
“Demanding Toilet Justice for the Women of China” by Jess Macy Yu, The New York Times, November 19, 2014.
“‘Occupy Toilet’ Movement Spreads” by Frank Lade, Weekly World News, Feb. 24, 2012
“India: No Toilet, No Bride” United Nations story, (2:30 mins.)
“India’s Toilet Revolution” — how lack of safe sanitation facilities impacts the women (6:11 mins.)
Photo Credit: Nairobi women’s sit-in protest lack of toilets. Photo by Karel Prinsloo