A toilet too far: Women scared of catching infections

Public washrooms are a perennial source of UTIs, which are often painful, accompanied by high fever & can cause serious issues. What is worse, if you aren't a woman, you remain ignorant of the hazards

A toilet too far: Women scared of catching infections

Garima Sadhwani

Five years ago, Alisha* (22) refused to attend a college because it didn’t have clean washrooms. Washrooms for women remains a problem even in the national capital. Has the situation improved five years later? Not really.

About to complete her post-graduation from Delhi University, Alisha says she and her friends rush to the Starbucks outlet close to the university when they have to use the washroom.

While this might seem like a privileged tantrum, public washrooms or lack of clean and hygienic washrooms are a perennial source of Urinary Tract Infections. These are often painful and accompanied by high fever. If spread to the other urinary tract organs (other than the uterus and bladder), UTIs can cause more serious issues. What is worse, if you are not a woman, you remain completely ignorant of the hazards.

What do women do then? Not use public washrooms at all? Well, a lot of women admit they avoid using public washrooms for as long as they can. Rhea*, a law student at Lucknow’s Amity University, contracted an infection from a public washroom and it was so bad that she doesn’t want to even talk about it. “It was so bad that I can’t even explain.”

Now, she doesn’t even book hotels while travelling unless she checks out the washroom herself, seeing whether the toilets are clean, and whether there is toilet paper and sanitisers.

Anya*, who hails from Manipur, has never contracted any infection. But she often came close to puking. “Most of the public washrooms I’ve been to are unhygienic and don’t have water. People also don’t flush them, so they smell bad. They are also often so dirty that the very idea of having to use them scares me.”

So, what do women do? “I stop drinking water or any liquid during journeys,” says Anya. Eight out of 10 women that NH spoke to for this story do the same. But doesn’t that cause more health problems? Yes, it does. Thumping headaches, migraine, dehydration and acne are often result of not drinking enough fluids.

Whenever Alisha has to step out of home, she makes sure to carry the smallest water bottle possible, “literally smaller than my palm, so that when I’m thirsty I take just a sip”.

What else can women do? Nora*, a lifestyle influencer, says that she uses a public washroom only in an emergency situation and she always squats to pee. “Even if the washroom looks clean, I still prefer to not use the seat at all,” she says firmly. Anya does the same, so does Neha, so does Siya, and so does Alisha. However, Alisha is having second thoughts since “I read somewhere that squatting over the toilet seat actually weakens your pelvis and is bad for your body”.

Devika*, a law student at Delhi University, prefers using Indian toilets, ever since her mother explained to her how they’re much safer to use as there’s no skin contact. When she’s travelling, she often prefers to answer nature’s call in an open space, such as a field, rather than using a public washroom. Another temporary solution for women is using feminine hygiene products. Nora uses a “stand and pee” product made by the brand PeeSafe.

Neha makes sure to carry a sanitiser with her every time she steps out of home, which she uses to first clean the toilet pan properly, besides using intimate care products after reaching home “just to be safe”, she explains.

Raghavi*, an Allahabad-based student and entrepreneur, puts sheets of tissues on the toilet seat whenever she has to use one. Rhea uses a hygiene wash and liners on a daily basis.

But not every woman has a solution at hand. Sohini*, a Delhi-based lawyer, has kidney stones and can’t hold out for very long. Alisha says she has a small bladder. Is there a solution at all?

Sohini believes that building more washrooms is not the answer. She says, “I think washrooms are more easily accessible now, but we need more cleaner ones.” Raghavi believes a cleanliness standard needs to be maintained across all public washrooms. She cites the example of how she’s much more comfortable using a public washroom at an airport than using one at a metro station.

Siya says a few basic etiquettes need to be made available on pamphlets “telling women to dispose pads properly and not leave the washrooms wet.” Rhea agrees. She feels there’s more to safeguarding oneself against UTIs than just cleaner washrooms. “Use liners if it suits your skin (and change it frequently), use hygiene wash, and keep your intimate area dry.”

“Ever since Covid locked up people in their homes, there was the comfort of knowing that you have a clean, hygienic washroom right at home when you’re menstruating,” says Alisha. But now that offices are opening up, it has become a little more difficult to get over habits at home and to hold out. Anya says she is more scared of contracting a unitary tract infection than Covid. “But every time I want to use the washroom in college, the first thought in my mind is how dirty it would be and not of Covid.”

(*names changed to protect identity)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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