Employers in India are failing to provide sufficient and separate toilet facilities for female workers, leaving women struggling to find safe sanitation and being discouraged from entering the world of work.
Toilet trouble: how India’s female workers face inadequate sanitation at work
No issue touches the lives of working women as intimately as that of access to sanitation.
Although the number of women in the workforce is on the rise, the provision of sufficient and adequate toilet facilities for them is still sadly lacking.
In India, women workers form a large proportion of the workforce in the informal or unorganised sectors, where workers are often engaged in strenuous physical work. However, the welfare facilities and standards of the informal sectors are generally not subject to any formal monitoring by the state or national governments.
Unfortunately, most workplaces and work activities in the informal sectors lack basic sanitation facilities, such as toilets.
“It is an unspoken rule to not use your employers’ loos,” says Rajkumari, a domestic worker. Rajkumari works in four houses in an upscale residential complex in Noida, but every time she needs to use the toilet, she has to walk down to the main entrance of the building and use the one set up for security guards and maintenance staff. “I once asked an employer if I could use their toilet. She gave me a stern look and asked me to stop drinking water while working,” recalls Rajkumari.
In fact, many women try to cope with the lack of adequate and safe toilet facilities at work by not drinking any liquids before going to work and the night before, in an attempt to avoid or reduce how often they need to go to the toilet during the working day. However, this puts them at risk of dehydration, particularly in warm or humid weather, which activists say is a serious health and wellbeing issue.
Although men in India are also faced with poor sanitation facilities both at work and in society more widely, they are less constrained by inadequate sanitation due to their willingness and ability to relieve themselves in public and the absence of social stigma and personal safety risks associated with men doing so.
However, for women the social stigma and risk of sexual harassment or assault means they are unable to relieve themselves in public. They have no choice but to wait until it is dark when there is less risk of being accosted.
Banking sector falls short on sanitation
Although large private companies have now started to change their practices and provide proper sanitation facilities at work for female employees and visitors, some government departments are still failing to provide sufficient, adequate and safe female toilets.
In March 2022, the Union finance ministry asked all public sector banks and financial institutions to take the necessary steps to provide separate toilets for female bank workers, the minister of state for finance Bhagwat Karad revealed in the Lok Sabha in a written response to a question from Madurai MP Su Venkatesan.
The instruction came after Su Venkatesan wrote to the minister warning that the Bank Employees Federation of India (BEFI) had informed him that many branches and offices of public sector banks and other banks do not provide separate toilets for women.
Venkatesan said the allegations had been confirmed by information collected through the Right to Information Act and other sources, and warned it is “a shocking issue affecting the dignity of the women”.
“The necessity for providing the separate toilets for women need not be explained. Our sisters deserve [an] honourable, decent and comfortable working atmosphere in workplaces and it is their right also,” Su Venkatesan told the minister. “Apart from women employees, women customers and other women connected with [these] office also require such [a] facility.”
Su Venkatesan added: “I request you to instruct all the banks – public sector, private sector, foreign sector, cooperative sector, DFls, payment and small finance banks – to provide separate toilets for women in all the branches and offices in Madurai and also throughout the country.”
In a written response, minister of state for finance Bhagwat Karad said the Union government had asked all public sector banks and financial institutions to take the necessary steps to provide toilet facilities for female workers.
“Further, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has also been requested to circulate the matter to all scheduled commercial banks for taking necessary action,” the minister added, according to The Times of India.
The banking industry employment rights campaign group, Bank Workers’ Unity, thanked S Venkatesan for raising the issue with the authorities and securing a positive response. However, it warned: “It is all the more imperative on the part of the bank employees and officers to ensure that these guidelines from the government are implemented in true spirits.”
Inadequate toilets in courts and police stations
There are also inadequate female sanitation facilities at the country’s courts. At the time of writing, it was reported that at the Hapur district court, out of four tiny toilets for women, only one is functional. The toilet’s door is cracked leaving no privacy for women, and there is no running water.
“For the longest time, courts have been perceived as a sacred place where people get justice rather than a workplace,” said Deepika Kinhal, senior resident fellow with the Vidhi Centre for Legal Reform Policy.
“So, infrastructure reforms [like adequate female toilets] have not really materialised yet.”
A 2019 report by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Reform Policy found that among the 74 district courts in Uttar Pradesh, four didn’t have a single washroom at all, while seven had no facilities for women.
Another case hit the headlines in 2021 over the lack of adequate sanitary facilities for female workers in police stations in Uttar Pradesh (UP).
Anjali Pandey, a third semester law student, filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) at Allahabad High Court, along with 13 other female law students, demanding action over the lack of basic sanitation amenities, washrooms and separate toilets for female workers in police stations in Prayagraj.
According to the Construction World news website, the team of law students conducted ground level research and visited 18 sites – 17 police stations and the bar council premises – in Prayagraj. They found that out of the 18 sites visited, only five had washrooms for women, which is the most basic facility that can be expected. The rural areas were found to have much worse sanitation facilities than this.
In their petition to the court, the law students also noted that a couple of police stations had common washroom facilities for men and women workers and this made some of them feel highly uncomfortable.
“Women personnel work for everyone and are a part of the government. If they don’t get basic facilities, what can we expect for us?” said Pandey at the time of her team’s research in 2021.
After hearing the PIL, Allahabad High Court directed the UP government to ensure that sufficient and separate female toilets and other necessary facilities for female workers and visitors were constructed in the police stations, warning that access to them is a basic and fundamental right.
The lawyer representing the UP government subsequently told the court that the UP government had begun work to provide toilets and washrooms for female employees and visitors at the state’s police stations, with the aim of providing one toilet and washroom for every four female employees, reported Construction World.
Inadequate facilities for female delivery workers
For female delivery workers, such as those working for app-based platforms, access to toilets is also a major concern. Even though in theory the restaurants that partner with the collection and delivery apps allow access to their toilets, many female delivery workers in fact do not get to use them.
For example, a female gig worker at online food delivery platform Zomato said she would not dare to ask to use the toilet out of fear. She mostly just relies on using the bathrooms at petrol stations and pumps.
Meanwhile, a study conducted by the International Labour Organization found that only 21 per cent of factories in India have separate toilets for men and women. Even fewer have facilities for menstrual hygiene management.
Lack of sanitation hinders female participation in the workforce
According to the World Bank, women constitute only 24 per cent of the total workforce in India, which is one of the lowest rates of female labour force participation in the world. This is partly due to the lack of proper sanitation and hygiene facilities in the workplace, which hinders women from fully participating in the workforce.
The lack of access to proper sanitation facilities – like separate, hygienic and safe toilets – and clean water not only affects the physical health of women, but also their safety and dignity, and makes it difficult for them to participate in the workforce and contribute to the economic development of the country.
Also, the poor provision of safe and hygienic toilets for female workers shows there remains a strong bias in Indian society against women fully participating in the workplace and reinforces the belief that women belong at home, say activists.
Therefore, it is clear that the lack of proper sanitation and hygiene facilities for working women in India is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed. Improving access to toilets and clean water – and ensuring adequate hygiene facilities in workplaces like offices, factories and shops – would help to empower women and promote gender equality.
Experts say that as a modern and developing nation, India must address this issue and provide equal access to basic necessities such as sanitation, clean water, and proper hygiene for all, especially for women, to enable them to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.
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