Last Woman Standing: Toilet Equality for Men and Women

Low-cost toilet in rural India.
Low-cost toilet in rural India.

By Zonibel Woods

Even when women do have access to a toilet, it is rarely equitable, as most public toilets fail to account for women’s needs.

On World Toilet Day we reflect on progress made on ensuring proper sanitation for all, and on why we must strengthen our commitment to achieve this goal.

Much remains to be done – especially for women. Globally, an estimated 1 in 3 women lack access to a toilet, and spend 97 billion hours each year searching for a place to defecate in the open, exposing them to sexual harassment and violence. Yet, even when women do have access to a toilet, it is rarely equitable.

For many women, using a public toilet means dealing with long lines and being forced to “hold it” while waiting their turn. In a bold and desperate move, we may dare to enter into male territory and use the men’s restroom. Once in the stall, we will rejoice at the sight of a hook to hang our bag, available toilet paper, and a proper garbage can. Without these we are forced to practice core body strength and balance while holding our bag or clothing between our teeth to prevent it from touching the floor. With a child in tow, this ordeal becomes a test in determination. Most women will relate and even chuckle at this description, but we ask – does it really have to be this way?

The problem is that most public toilets fail to account for women’s needs. 

Research shows that the average time a woman spends in a toilet is 90 seconds, and 5-10 minutes if she is with a child. Men only spend an average 35 seconds in the urinal and 60 seconds overall. A woman spends more time in the toilet not because it’s a fun place to hang out, but due to biological, social, and cultural gender norms. Women must sit down while men can stand up. Women have to remove more clothing than men, whose clothing provides faster access. Changing a diaper or a sanitary napkin involves a number of steps and takes time. When women "hold it," they risk developing cystitis and urinary tract infections that may cause low birth weight in babies. Women usually need to carry more things than men, they menstruate, they must use the toilet more frequently when they are pregnant, and when they are breastfeeding. These are all biological functions that women cannot control. Lastly, women on average live longer than men, and older and disabled women need more time to get in and out of toilets. Why, then, should women have to wait longer than men to access a toilet?

Public restrooms generally provide the same number of toilets for women and men. This approach is outdated and has been legally challenged in the US as effectively constituting a discriminatory practice. Advocates for “potty parity” have argued in court that the allocation of equal spaces for women and men favors the needs of men and fails to take into account women’s different needs. For example, urinals substantially increase the number of facilities for men. In response, governments and institutions are passing laws and building regulations that require for facilities to include a 3:2 female to male toilet ratio. In Asia, Hong Kong, Shanghai and other cities are setting better female to male toilet ratios, particularly in new buildings.

ADB has contributed to progress on women's access to sanitation in Asia and the Pacific by including in projects the construction of women’s toilets as a gender design feature. The challenge is to move from equal to equitable access, and facilities that meet women’s needs. This can be achieved by providing a greater ratio of female to male toilets, and female toilets with shelves and coat hooks that are sufficiently wide and strong enough to accommodate items that would otherwise be placed on the floor or wet lavatory surfaces. Likewise, women need feminine hygiene disposal units, preferably wall-mounted and metal, as well as disposal bags for soiled sanitary towels and information on appropriate disposal to avoid blockages. Wheelchair-accessible toilets that include diaper changing facilities are also a must.

Where feasible, the best solution is a unisex toilet. Everybody waits, men and women, and this equally shares the waiting time. It allows men or women to bring their children to use the facilities or be changed and can include amenities such as two toilets—one for adults and one for children—and a changing table. 

Lastly, women also need public toilets to be safe. We can do this by placing entrances and exits to toilet facilities that allow women direct access from public areas, with mirrors strategically located to assist the line of sight and emergency call buttons.

These are among the things we need to not only give women access to toilets, but also ensure that access is equitable.