Build them for women

Is the welfare of women a priority in the minds of those bestowed with the powers to formulate policies for urban development? We are well into the 21st century, but women continue to be forgotten in urban planning. This is evident in the initiatives of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. For example, the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), initiated in 2014, is a reincarnation of the earlier Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA). It intends to make India open-defecation free and eradicate manual scavenging. It also stresses on "modern and scientific" solid waste management.

Sustaining these efforts by bringing about behavioural changes regarding sanitation practices and building the capacity of urban local bodies (ULBs) for operation and management is critical. Finally, to generate awareness amongst people by 2019 is one of the objectives of SBM. Indeed, it is ambitious of the government to attempt to achieve all of this by 2019.

On its part, the Union government, using Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity, and its ability to scale up advertising has made a determined effort to increase awareness. The question is, has this awareness deepened the understanding of specific sanitation issues of women and led to behavioural change? SBM, being the flagship programme of the government, unfortunately seems to categorically exclude women from its ambit.

The Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban (SBM-U) guidelines have six major components, with a detailed plan for toilet construction. As per the guidelines, the difference between household toilets and community/public toilets is the number of users each is made for and the on-site sanitation system. The SBM-U specifies a toilet of 800mm x 1000mm x 1900mm measure, with options for on-site sanitation as per the guidelines updated on October 5, 2017.

Further, in addition to the specifications, the guidelines also postulate norms for toilet seats - one seat for 35 men, and one seat for 25 women. This is in proportion to the population of men, women, the physically challenged and transgenders. Provisions for wash basins and bathing facilities have been made.

However, concrete norms or specifications for menstrual hygiene management do not find any mention in the guidelines. No marked variation is visible in the plan for male and female toilets. It is necessary to understand the requirements of men and women in any public facility. The design is that of gender-neutral toilets, which may not serve the intended purpose. The specified space will not allow for women to change and dispose sanitary napkins. SBM-U guidelines are silent over the needs of women, almost half the population.

There is no allocation for safe disposal of menstrual waste. Closed-lid disposal bins need to be provided for, as per the guidelines. There is a recommendation for provision of incinerators in public toilets. However, feasibility issues need to be addressed along with concerns of environmental pollution. Provision for sanitary napkin vending machines is also not fashioned in the guidelines. Ensuring availability of sanitary napkins in the vicinity of community/public is not culturally acceptable.

Fighting taboo

Pervasive taboos of menstruation - a badge of shame worn by scores of Indian women - call for in-depth understanding. The solutions imagined cannot solely rely on attitudinal change. Provisioning free sanitary napkins within the community/public toilet is essential. This not only ensures safe sanitation but also gives women access to urban spaces.

The present guidelines for menstrual hygiene management (MHM) under the SBM were issued by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, 2015, as a part of the Swachh Bharat Mission–Gramin (SBM-G). This is only an extension of the Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) under the earlier NBA.

The MHM guidelines under SBM echo the interventions in the guidelines issued by the NBA Division, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. Neither has a reference to the urban context. MHM under SBM focuses primarily on hygiene management for school-going adolescent girls, tacitly evading any detailed discussion on the facilities in community and public toilets.

The MHM speaks of the need to break taboos associated with menstruation and integrates the information, education and communication activities (IEC) with facilities for adolescent girls. Any plan towards attitudinal change is incomplete if only done for school-going girls. By targeting the community at large, the mission will come to fruition in an effective manner.

Looking forward, the formulation of policies should be such that they are inclusive of the needs of all sections of the population. A strong narrative is needed to not only accept menstruation as a physiological condition but also making it sustainable by ensuring that eco-friendly pads are made available. As a start, incentives can be given to manufacturers of sanitary napkins who use organic materials. Sustainable menstruation should be considered in tandem with the deliberated recommendations.

In a federal structure, all central schemes are meant to serve as a direction to the various state governments. Loopholes in the guidelines must be plugged to make way for accountability. The pink toilets initiative by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi is impressive and should not remain mere tokenism.

Let's understand that "pink" is not just a colour, it is an idea that fulfils all the requirements and aspirations of women. Strong guidelines, currently missing, that include the idea of women-friendly toilets should be framed. The Centre must monitor the implementation of these guidelines in an effective manner by involving local governments.

Awards can be instituted, which may serve as an incentive for state governments while inspiring healthy competition. Let this initiative not remain just another social welfare programme tangled in administrative rigmarole.

(The writer is a Master's in Public Policy student, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat)

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