Public toilet_Kumasi GhanaThough much of the mainstream architectural discourse around informal settlements centers on the issue of adequate housing, it is inadequate sanitation that poses an even greater risk to the health and safety of poor communities in developing nations. Women in particular are vulnerable to the unhygienic conditions of ill-maintained toilet blocks, and often face the threat of rape when resorting to the common practice of open defecation where toilets are either too far, nonexistent, or just not the cultural norm. Addressing this urgency is not only a matter of building more toilets, but building better toilets designed by and for women.

This notion of incorporating a gender-based perspective to the provision of sanitation infrastructure is the subject of the doctoral research of two of our alumnis, Anshika Suri and Allison Koornneef, who recently presented their preliminary findings at the MORE International Conference on Gender and Architecture, which highlights the contributions that feminism makes to architecture and urban planning.

16299137_1819683791638630_5577593587021342400_nAlumni Anshika Suri and Allison Koornneef at the MORE III International Conference on Gender and Architecture in Florence, Italy, last January.

“Sanitation infrastructure provision is often determined through an engineering or a health/hygiene perspective that fails to incorporate a focus on women’s needs or acknowledge existing gender disparities and socio-cultural constructs,” argues Indian-born Anshika, a PhD candidate at Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany. In her her paper, titled  Investigating gender inequality through the lens of infrastructural inadequacy: A case study of cities in East Africa, Anshika explores how infrastructural inadequacy is contributing to the growing violence towards women in informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, countries where nearly 70% of the population have no access to private toilets.

16298581_1819682668305409_4087756880913041653_nHer preliminary conclusions reveal that, indeed, inadequate access to sanitation is propelling a fear of violence among these women, who describe various coping mechanisms to negotiate their growing fear of urban public spaces—from using different access routes at night for shared toilets, to using buckets or ‘flying toilets’ (defecating in plastic bags which are then tossed outside the house). Some women even go so far as to not drink water after 6pm and limiting bathroom trips to twice a day.

“I believe basic infrastructure provision needs an new analytical lens, especially when it comes to the cities of the global south,” says Anshika. While there’s been exhaustive research on gender violence and sanitation infrastructure, Anshika points to the lack of research on whether public infrastructure has, in fact, become another system of oppression against women, especially considering the empirical evidence of  growing gender violence against women in cities where sanitation access is scarce.

By using a feminist, intersectional perspective on the gendered usage of technical infrastructure, she aims to broaden the discussion on urban planning in cities and informal settlements.

In addition to sub-Saharan Africa, India ranks lowest in access to sanitation, making over 300 million Indian women and girls without access to bathrooms twice as likely to be raped (as if the structural dangers of delapidated toilet blocks and lack of running water wasn’t enough.) As part of her doctoral research at UIC, Alumni Allison Koornneef studied the case of Mumbai’s Kandivali slum in her research paper Assessing Gender-Based Violence and Sanitation in Kandivali, Mumbai.

16298525_1819680754972267_6475322249092757624_nLike Anshika, Allison also observed how the lack of toilets profoundly affects women. “They might alter their eating time to avoid leaving the home at night, and have to carefully plan in order to have privacy to wash their menstrual cloths. They might have to face sexual harassment of men loitering around public toilets. These experiences can condition their everyday reality in a way that limits their full participation in society as equal citizens with rights to the city, to safety, health, and dignity.”

“We need to involve women in the design-making process to come up with better designs for public toilets, better locations for those toilets, and better ways to manage and maintain them,” Allison says.

That starts by asking women about their experiences. She proposes feminist research methods in conducting safety audits that record how women in Indian cities experience degrees of safety, the types of violence they face in different places, and the characteristics of those places. “An intersectional feminist perspective puts women at the center of the research process and exposes the diversity of women’s experiences, rather than making blanket statements about what ‘all women’ or ‘the average woman’ experiences.” Data is separated into different categories such as where the respondents live, their age/stage of life, their socio-economic status, and so on.

Shared toilet_DhakaShared toilet in Dhaka, Bangladesh. via The Independent

It also means allowing the respondents to define the questions, categories, and terms used in those audits. One woman may perceive ‘clean’ and ‘safe’ very differently than another woman, for example, depending on their current living conditions. “The idea is to not put words into the mouths of the respondents, but rather let them lead the conversation and shape policy outcomes.”

Of course, lack of government funding is still a major obstacle to solving the world’s toilet problem. And even though some countries have started building more toilets, the real challenge lies in getting people to use them, most urgently the millions of women whose lives are conditioned and endangered by their inadequacy.

“All the foreign and national investment in sanitation in India, while it may achieve some advancements, will continue to fall short of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals if they do not include the female beneficiaries in the decision-making processes from the beginning, ” says Allison.

Mathare Children's Fund_Anshika_Nairobi
Anshika with the participants of the Teenage Mother’s Programme run by a local NGO Mathare Children’s Fund in Nairobi, Kenya.

Despite efforts by advocacy groups and women architects working with local NGOs, designing better toilets for women still necessitates more input from the women who will use them.

Anshika says, “Designers often themselves make gendered assumptions about the user, assumptions that can be ‘designed into the object. Users, however, by their way of interacting and using the technology and infrastructure, contribute to its social shaping, which can differ from what the designers intended.”

Top photo via The Independent



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