Wednesday, April 24, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Bhumijo: A lifesaving initiative for Dhaka women

Established in 2016, Bhumijo has been transforming public restrooms, making them more accessible for women

Update : 25 May 2022, 06:08 PM

Bhumijo, a social enterprise, has stepped up to ensure that women have equal access to sanitary and safe public toilets.

It has been offering comprehensive public sanitation services in Dhaka, with the vision of building livable and resilient cities, since June 2016. Starting with just five employees Bhumijo now boasts a team of 45.

It is hard for someone who has not lived in Dhaka to perceive exactly how harrowing it is for a woman to use a public toilet. 

In the thriving metropolis of millions of people, there are not enough public toilets, let alone one clean and hygienic enough for a woman to use. 

Over 90% of public restrooms under the two city corporations are unusable, according to a recent study by ActionAid Bangladesh, in association with UK Aid. 

Not only are the facilities unsafe, but around 54% of them also lack basic sanitation.

Dilshad Hossain Dodul, senior lecturer at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh’s media studies and journalism department, has been suffering from a fever for the past three days due to a urinary infection.

Photo shows the interior of a Bhumijo public restroom in Gulshan, Dhaka Courtesy

"I have a bathroom phobia. As a result I did not drink water during my trip from Dhaka to Shyamnagar so that I would not have to use a public restroom,” she said. 

“However, I had to use a public restroom at one point despite my annoyance," she posted on Facebook.

Quoting her doctor she said 90% of his patients had UTIs, with the majority of them being women in the workforce.

Dilshad is not the only woman who faces this problem in Bangladesh. Almost all women suffer due to lack of toilets when they leave home. 

In order to avoid public toilets, most drink less water and avoid using them for long hours, increasing the risk of contracting urinary and kidney infections.

A lifesaver

Bhumijo’s initiatives include renovating existing toilets in areas where a large number of women gather frequently.

One such example is the one at Noor Mansion at the city's Gawsia Market, which is a popular shopping destination for women of all ages.

Before Bhumijo’s initiative, there was no proper toilet in the age-old market, even though women frequent the area regularly.

No additional land is required for the renovation of public toilets. Previously unused spaces and resources are efficiently utilized. The existing toilets can be renovated at only Tk5 lakh.

It has also built new public toilets, each costing around Tk10-15 lakh.

To date, Bhumijo has built 25 public toilets in Dhaka. Five more will be launched at the end of this year with three more public toilets in Dhaka and two in Narayanganj being constructed.

By 2025 Bhumijo plans to build 100 toilets, and by 2030 it aims to build 1,000 toilets in Dhaka alone. 

Despite ensuring proper restrooms the charge for using these toilets range from Tk5-Tk10, the same as at the ones run by the two city corporations. 

The initiative is gender-inclusive — all genders have their own compartments, including people belonging to the third gender.

Sanitary supplies, such as sanitary napkins and diapers, are also available for purchase inside the establishments.

Bhumijo will soon launch an app which will allow users to find its nearest restrooms — they can also be found on Google Maps — and check whether they are occupied and the air quality inside.

It also designs public restrooms and provides maintenance. Several public toilets constructed by the city corporations are now maintained by them. They also provide advertising opportunities within the building, with products displayed in designated areas.

The brain behind Bhumijo

Architect Farhana Rashid is the owner and co-founder of Bhumijo. She received a Swedish Institute (SI) Scholarship to study sustainable urban planning and design at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden after completing her bachelor's in architecture at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet).

She and her husband Architect Masudul Islam Shammo co-founded the Bhumijo. 

Bhumijo co-founder Farhana Rashid Courtesy

Farhana Rashid returned to Bangladesh in 2016 after completing her master's degree to oversee a research project on regional planning and development in Dhaka and surrounding minor villages at Bengal Institute of Architecture.

Although she had been thinking about ways to contribute to the betterment of society and the environment, she did not know where to begin.

“In 2016, the Urban Innovation Challenge (UIC) was started. Brac called for ideas to improve Dhaka by addressing the pressing issues,” she told Dhaka Tribune. 

“As an architect and planner I have always thought that the solution to any problem can be found within the problem itself. So when the time came we pitched our ideas for resolving the public toilet situation with limited resources and time," she added.

"After competing against over 600 ideas, Bhumijo was named the winner of UIC 2016 in the health category. When I was visiting Rajshahi with my one-month-old daughter, I received the news. I dared to start working on this with the help of my family and Brac," she said.

"During my time as a student I saw how serious the issue of public cleanliness was and how urgently it needed to be solved." 

She recalled her experience of always drinking less or refusing to drink water altogether when she went out. 

“For me the equation was straightforward: if I did not drink, I would not need the restroom. I was not the only one who felt like this. Every woman in my close surrounding was doing the same," she said.

"Dhaka should have at least 3,000 public toilets, but we only have 60. In an ideal city there would be a toilet every 5-10 minutes of walking distance. The problem in Dhaka is not only a scarcity of toilets, it is also that the existing ones are in awful condition. They are filthy, crowded and dark. Many of them are dysfunctional,” she added.

She also said it was possible for the city corporations to maintain the public toilets properly.

"Building a toilet is simple, but maintenance is complicated. We must understand that various areas require different maintenance strategies," she continued.

She also stated that there were various hurdles to overcome before a toilet could be built or renovated.

"With regard to population density and land ownership, we need to select the perfect place where there is a great need for public toilets. We also need to negotiate with the community to convince them that having a clean public restroom is a basic requirement. People normally do not want a public toilet near their homes because they have a certain image of a public toilet in their minds,” she said.

“The knowledge and experiences I gained at KTH and in Sweden, particularly the gender perspective in urban planning and design, were important in the founding of Bhumijo,” she told Dhaka Tribune.

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