Almost 15 % of world’s population is disabled according to the data provided by the World Health Organization. Women are the most marginalized section of this percentage, most having no access to toilets in India. On World Toilet Day, Iamin speaks to Anjlee Agarwal, Director of Delhi-based Samarthyam, National Centre for Accessible Environments, who is leading the advocacy for the rights of disabled women to be able to use public toilets with safety and dignity. Excerpts from the interview:
"If I am not able to access toilets and the government is not offering the services which are required for me, then what is the government doing?"
What led to the inception of your organisation to advocate the rights of disabled women in India?
The idea took shape in 1991 when we saw various issues that deter disabled people to be a part of mainstream society. The Persons with Disability Act came in 1995 and even after two decades, there is clear discrimination towards this section of people. So, personally, as a disabled woman; I want to say that if they want to keep the disabled away from accessing facilities then provision of toilets for the disabled women is more of a personal issue than political issue.
What was your observation about the access of toilets for disabled women in India?
We started with focus on what could be done to make schools, public buildings, communities as well individual households accessible for disabled women. When we started our advocacy, we found that one basic issue is Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). There are allocated funds, a dedicated Ministry - Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, which focuses on urban settlements and Ministry of Urban Development that has a sanitation policy for India.
There is a clear ignorance as far as policies and initiatives for people with disabilities to access toilets and clean and safe drinking water is concerned. Hence, we started doing audits, which is accessibility assessment of environment or a public place, to see the facilities that are accessible for both disabled children and adults, and specially looking at girls’ and women with disabilities because they are severely discriminated, marginalised and vulnerable to different kinds of abuse from society.
What are the issues related to toilet use for disabled women in India?
In our audits with 500 schools in 16 states, we found that less than 60 schools have toilets for girls, which means around 440 schools do not have toilets. Few which are available do not have doors, lights, water and even ventilation. So, the girls defecate in the open in the school premises, compound areas or use the boys’ toilet. In the boys’ toilet, they are scared that there is a man or a boy approaching because most of the male teachers also use the boys’s toilet.
When they attain puberty or start menstruating, they drop out of school due to lack of water and menstruation hygiene management. Disabled girls are the biggest sufferers, because they can’t do anything on their own, they cannot even squat like other girls. Less than 0.1 % girls with disabilities in the schools get to access toilets and less than 0.5% stay in the schools after hitting puberty. The families ask them to stay back at home for 5 days a week, hence, 60 days of the school are left out.
Open defecation leads to diarrhoea, it leads to stunting of growth due to malnutrition problems. Open defecation is a big issue in India. UNICEF estimates that nearly one-half of Indian children remain malnourished. When there are no toilets at home in villages, girls with disability are taken to openly defecate; they have to be lifted by their parents and that’s done early in the morning hours at 3-4 am. The whole family schedule is disturbed, the child is disturbed and also it’s not very easy if there is a medical case or issue like pregnancy or it is an issue that if the mother is pregnant and is not able to carry the child to go for open defecation, then the father is the one who does that. They maybe abused because they go for long stints and far off places. When they dropout and are less educated, they get married very fast in the early stages. When they get married in early stages, their own health and the health of the baby is dismal. The lack of toilets in schools leads to a national problem.
Why is this section of society more vulnerable than others?
Women with disabilities have to find private spots to you know for the open defecation and there are criminal activities, abuse, rape happens because these people tune themselves that this is the time that the women will come out and this is the time she is more vulnerable because she cannot run if she is orthopedically disabled, she cannot see the person who has raped her if the person is blind and if she is healing and speech impaired, then the advantages are much more because then she wont be able to shout or she wont be able to complain.
None of the urban cities call it Delhi, or the metro cities of Chennai, Bangalore or Mumbai, do not have accessible toilets in public places such as a market, bus-stop, terminus, etc. So, people with disabilities cannot access them, if you are not able to access the toilets definitely you are not drinking adequate water, which is required for your good health or you are not eating properly and that leads to kidney stones.
What can be done to facilitate inclusion of accessible places for disabled women in the country?
There is a need to link the accessibility and safety for disabled with the sustainable cities. The latest trend is 100 smart cities by the Ministry of Urban Development. So, any city cannot be smart unless there are adequate public facilities and amenities and especially around places where there are public gatherings. For instance, malls are provided with accessible toilets due to which many people with disabilities and senior citizens have started coming out of their homes to shop. So, this is a lucrative market which has never been tapped. Now, if you don’t provide public toilets, then you are limiting the use of public amenities by these people.
But organisations like Sulabh International do provide toilets in public spaces?
We have not seen Sulabh toilets in public places having accessible toilets for disabled, except for the Delhi Metro stations. An accessible toilet needs to be European-style with running water facility. These toilets have to be a bigger especially for the girls who use wheelchairs, they can go inside the toilet, close the door and then transfer from the wheelchair. It’s a complete design mechanism where the detailing has to be looked into comprehensively to each and every dimension.
The placement of the WC, the height of the WC, grab bars, which need to be provided to see that the girls can hold on to the grab bars, and transfer and then transfer vice-versa and then wash themselves. So, isn’t it Sulabh’s prerogative to provide accessible toilets because there is a law in the country because there is a people with disabilities who want accessible toilets?
What are you doing to address these problems?
We have designed a school audit toolkit that looks at important aspects with regards to accessible spaces for disabled children. For the accessible toilets in Delhi Metro, we gave them the design specifications and told them our needs, which have been addressed. We have also got a compulsory clause put into the building regulations or building by laws.
We are working with the Ministry of Urban Development, we worked out the model building bylaws. In the model building bylaws, we enforced that accessible toilets or disable friendly toilet should not be just a toilet but it should be used as a multi-use toilet, where the senior citizens, pregnant ladies, people having medical conditions and even families with young people can use it because these toilets are bigger, spacious, so you can even provide a diaper changing table and all that to make it like a family toilet. There is multi-fold use of this toilet and it will not be locked and it would not be closed and used as a storage system. Even the access to these toilets must be easy, with illumination, even pathway must be provided.
Accessibility to toilets in public spaces is a basic human need. We must remember that we ageing is a natural process. Ageing and disability have a direct correlation. If you can see things and move around today, you may not because of ageing tomorrow. Disabled people go through thus every day. So make their today better by providing accessible toilets within households and community spaces which can be used by senior citizens, pregnant women and also others without compromising the safety and dignity of the women with disabilities.
Source : I am in DNA of North West Delhi , 19th Nov 2014