We need public and community toilets that suit women and girls, not just men

Thumbnail WaterAid/ Behailu Shiferaw

It’s everyone’s human right to be able to use a toilet – whenever and wherever they need. Priya Nath, WaterAid’s Equality, Inclusion and Rights Advisor, explains why public and community toilets must serve women and girls as well as men, and how to make them female-friendly.

Sometimes things have been a certain way for so long that we forget they could be different.

This was the case with toilets for a long time. The design, planning and management of public toilets, for example, has been, and in many countries continues to be, a male-dominated field of work. Traditional public toilet design has reflected this by best suiting a typical male body.

But the biological and physiological differences in populations, and the roles and norms within our societies, affect how different people use the toilet and what they need from one.

Why does this matter?

A ‘one-size-fits-all’, gender-blind approach does not create public or community toilet facilities that suit everyone. Usually it short-changes women, people with disabilities, older people, and carers supporting others to use the toilet. This forces people who are likely to already face other barriers that restrict their participation to find other ways to manage their toilet needs when out and about.

Design of an accessible female-friendly toilet. WaterAid/ Verónica Grech
Illustration of a female-friendly accessible toilet.

Going to the toilet, at multiple points during the day and night, is a basic human requirement, and a human right for everyone. Having access to a toilet at home is vital, but people also need to have somewhere to go when moving around their city or town, travelling to work, at the market, socialising – just going about their daily life.

WaterAid works in 28 low- and middle-income countries around the world. In most places there are not nearly enough public and community toilets. For example, a 2011 survey by WaterAid in Bangladesh found that in Dhaka there were only 47 public toilet blocks serving around 7 million people. And a 2016 mapping by the Urban Migrant Centre in Ahmedabad, India, found that more than 20,000 people relied on the city’s 262 public and community toilet blocks, only six of which were in ‘good’ condition.

Ignoring half the world

Where facilities do exist, they are often gender blind and fail to cater to some of the specific requirements women and girls have when using the toilet. For example, toilets should cater for menstruation needs – including somewhere hygienic and private to wash or dispose of used menstrual products – and for the increased or different pressures on the body during pregnancy, menopause, or periods of incontinence (which afflicts women more than men).

Furthermore, existing facilities do not always adequately respond to the different social pressures and realities women and girls face. In the Dhaka survey, three quarters of the 47 blocks were not female-friendly or child-friendly because they were in unsafe areas or had no reliable water supply and/or no lighting, making them impractical, undesirable and unsafe for women and girls.

This means toilets are failing to cater adequately to at least half of the population.

Practitioners and academics are challenging this type of gender-blind planning and design. Awareness is increasing of the need to make toilets female-friendly, and more women are becoming involved in the process of making that happen – as planners, engineers, local government officials and advocates. But progress is too slow, and inconsistent.

A guide for planners and decision makers

To help shine a light on how we can overcome gender-blind sanitation provision, WaterAid, UNICEF and WSUP have produced Female-friendly public and community toilets – a guide for planners and decision makers. Designed for those responsible for providing, building or maintaining these toilets the guide includes descriptions of practical features, supporting evidence and guidelines to ensure toilets are designed and adapted to be female-friendly.

It draws on many examples of good practice and technical guidelines, bringing these and the key features of female-friendly toilets together in an easy-to-reference resource, for busy local government officials and planners to use as a starting point from which to work. Watch the animation below for a handy introduction:

More than a place to go

It’s important to note that the female-friendly features described in the guide should not be seen as optional extras or ‘ideal case’ scenarios – they are essential. While local adaptation is vital, so too is the acknowledgement that when public and community toilets do not meet women’s and girls’ requirements, or those of older people or people with disabilities, this contributes to the already significant discrimination these groups might be experiencing.

Negative effects on health and mobility, physiological stress and safety, economic outcomes and ability to participate equally in public life should no longer be tolerated as normal.

Female-friendly public community and public toilets are part of the solution. They are a vital component of safe and sustainable cities that work for every inhabitant, not just a minority.

Download Female-friendly public and community toilets: a guide for planners and decision makers >