Rich or poor, everyone in Dhaka has had to hold a full bladder on the road at some point in their lives. This is part and parcel of living in a city that has 1 toilet for every 215,000 people. These toilets are also infamously unsuable.
According to a study by ActionAid Bangladesh, in association with UK Aid, on a “Gender Responsive City Structure” more than 90% of public toilets run by the city corporations are unusable. Most of these facilities are 96% insecure, 54% of them lack sanitation facilities and 91.5% of them are unhygienic and dirty.
There has been a concerted effort made by WaterAid, Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC), Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC), Bhumijo and Brac to make public toilets usable again, especially for women.
Visiting the newly refurbished public toilets in Tejgaon truck stand, the Dhaka Tribune found that it had handicap access and on call cleaning service. Some 300 people use them daily, for a small fee of Tk5-Tk15.
The Public toilet in Banglamotor as well has been refurbished with showering facilities that is visited by a 100 people a day, said Komola Begum, toilet supervisor. The ones at Satrasta intersection and in Kathalbagan are both equipped with showers, lavatories, drinking water, disability access and lockers.
Even though these public toilets are usable, they are a few and far between still. The problems arising from a lack of usable public toilets affect women more than men. Many women and girls hold their bladder, or end up drinking much less water for fear of not having usable toilets around.
Doctors routinely warn that delaying urination is one of the major causes of urinary tract infection (UTI), an infection that women are more susceptible to. According to World Health Organisation, poor sanitation is linked to transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio.
In observing World Toilet Day today, which is part of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in ensuring safe sanitation for all by 2030, it is apparent that Bangladesh has a long way to go.
One recent development however is a public toilet renovation, built entirely for women in Noor Mansion, Gawsia Market that has garnered a lot of attention for being modern, clean and safe to use.
Funded by Brac, the project cost Tk500,000, and was built in collaboration with the Dhaka South City Corporation.
It costs Tk10 per use with two dedicated cleaners all day. Mithila Aktar Nasima could not believe her eyes when she went to the bathroom to change her baby’s diapers.
“I cannot believe how clean this bathroom is. I usually drink as little water as possible when I am out because I know how disgusting public toilets are in the city. They simply cannot be used,” she said.
Roxy Akhter who works in the market said: “We used to avoid going to the bathroom because they were so filthy. After this toilet was built, going to the bathroom has become much more easy for women.” Bhumijo provides tokens to market employees so that they can use the bathroom for free.
Bhumijo co-founder and Architect Farhana Rashid said that a survey in Dhaka from 2016-2017 found that 80% of women avoid drinking water before leaving the house in the fear of not finding proper toilets. The survey also found that Dhaka will need at least 3,000 toilets by 2020.
“Bhumijo won last year’s urban innovation challenge by Brac and we made our idea a reality with funding from the organisation,” Farhana said. “It is impossible to meet the demand for public toilets in Dhaka because of a lack of space but we want to modernise existing toilets in markets, schools and colleges.”
Brac’s Social Innovation Lab Director Dr Mohamed Foysol Chowdhury said the core objective of their organisation is to protect women’s rights and dignity.
According to sources, 32 important locations including New Market, Farmgate, Maghbazar, Malibagh, Mouchak, Uttara, Mohakhali and Mirpur have been marked for this kind of project considering public accessibility and security issues.
“We are looking for financiers to develop over 100 such toilets in Dhaka by next year if there is positive response from this one,” said a Brac employee.