As Zimbabwe’s Peter Morgan received the Stockholm Water Prize last week for inventing a revolutionary low-cost toilet, women in Mumbai faced another day of battling their urge to pee. They have little choice: In a city with 20 million people and notorious traffic jams, there’s practically nowhere to go. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corp. allocates about a third of its 10,381 public toilet seats for women, but those facilities typically charge women for entry while men can use urinals for free. Now the local government has pledged to spend about $100,000 to build the first of 25 women-only facilities, thanks to a Right to Pee campaign launched two years ago by a network of nonprofit groups.
It’s a small victory in an accelerating effort to tackle the dearth of toilets, one of India’s most intractable and costly issues. About 55 percent of all households in the country lack toilets, according to the United Nations, and in rural areas 70 percent of the population defecates in rivers or the streets. The problem isn’t getting the water—more than 90 percent of homes now have access to improved water sources. It’s getting people to invest in building facilities.
Even in Bangalore, home to India’s IT industry, more than 34,000 households have cell phones but not toilets. That’s why Matt Damon spent four days there in late August in his capacity as co-founder of Water.org, which is helping provide loans for villages to make toilet investments. The World Bank has an initiative as well, and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has made loo construction a personal cause.
India’s rural development minister, Jairam Ramesh, has backed a “no toilet, no bride” campaign to shame men into building latrines. One district recently required potential grooms to pose beside their toilets as a precondition for marriage registration. Another stopped payments to 21 principals whose school toilets didn’t pass muster.
Factors of biology and sociology make the toilet scarcity particularly damaging to women. India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development estimates that a lack of access to toilets causes girls between 12 and 18 to miss five days of school per month after they hit puberty. Being forced to leave their homes to squat in a field leaves them vulnerable to ridicule and rape. While a 2011 Supreme Court ruling requires every public school to have toilets, especially for girls, only 18 percent have gender-segregated facilities and 11 percent still have no toilets at all.
Indian writer Shobhaa De understands the power in having a loo of one’s own. “If millions of Indian women still have to wait for the cover of darkness to perform their daily business,” she recently wrote, “we cannot call ourselves a civilized country.”