Have you ever been to Karachi? The traffic here is wild. It’s like everyone’s honking their horns at the same time, topped with sweltering heat. There are all sorts of vehicles on the road, from bikes and auto rickshaws to cycles and even donkey carts. And don’t forget about the crowded public buses. It’s definitely an adventure just driving around the city. But this adventure is not everyone’s cup of tea. Let’s be honest; we don’t have a choice but to step into the world’s chaos, leaving our peaceful and cosy homes. Well, it can’t be that bad, right? Unfortunately, it is as bad as it sounds. Dealing with congested traffic on roads, some of which are under construction, can make travelling outside your home an unpleasant experience. It may even increase the stress levels in your already stressful life. On top of that, imagine having the strong urge to relieve yourself when you are away from the comfort of your home. If you are a man, then you are lucky because you may have an easier time finding a suitable location, but if you are a woman, then you can vouch this is something that is not less than a nightmare.
According to the UNICEF Report 2019, around 25 million Pakistanis lack the accessibility to toilets. But this situation is even worse if we consider the female population. Karachi is a highly developed and influential city in Pakistan, serving as the country’s commercial hub. Many individuals from various regions of Pakistan migrate to Karachi every day in search of better prospects and a higher quality of life. The world population review reports that the population of Karachi has reached 17,236,230, with at least a quarter of that number being female residents of the city. Despite being one of the most developed cities in the country, Karachi still lacks adequate sanitation facilities for women.
This city is home to several working women, and most of its residents never fail to encourage women’s empowerment. However, a part of empowering women means providing them with basic rights, including a safe and hygienic place to ease themselves. Unfortunately, with the exception of malls and some established public locations, there is a severe shortage of restrooms designated for women. This puts women in a vulnerable position, making it difficult for them to leave their homes freely without worrying about finding the right place to answer nature’s call.
Hina Yousaf, a social scientist, and entrepreneur, demands, “The government must take responsibility for providing public restrooms for females across the entire city. Access to safe and hygienic public restrooms for women is a basic human right that must be considered an essential aspect of a city’s infrastructure.”
Numerous working women in Karachi manage their household duties and also contribute to society as responsible citizens. And the lack of females’ restrooms is an issue that cannot be taken lightly, as these women face numerous challenges daily because of the unavailability of public restrooms.
Sundas Rana, a mother of two and a working woman, emphasises the urgency of addressing this issue that has yet to be tackled by higher authorities. “The scarcity of public toilets for women is a pressing social problem that often goes overlooked by those in positions of authority and even by organisations dedicated to promoting women’s rights. The absence of hygienic and conveniently accessible restrooms poses a severe threat to women’s health, potentially leading to the development of various health issues. It makes us feel uncomfortable due to unhygienic conditions, harassment, and violence, affecting our social mobility and employment chances,” elucidates Sundas.
Inshirah, a young female engineer from Karachi, comments, “In marketplaces like Jama Cloth or Liaquatabad supermarket, women shop all day long. Unfortunately, these locations do not have restrooms designated for women, and the ones these places have are unsuitable for women. Threats include a lack of privacy and safety because these toilets are located in the stranded part of the markets and are mostly used by the male population. As a result, we sometimes have to resort to using mosque restrooms, but we avoid public toilets due to their poor maintenance and privacy issues. However, when we ask for public restrooms, we are often directed to hotels.”
Karachi is home to several working women, and most of its residents never fail to encourage women’s empowerment. However, a part of empowering women means providing them with basic rights, including a safe and hygienic place to ease themselves.
The scarcity of female public restrooms is not just a matter of concern because of health issues, but it also puts females at risk of being exposed to becoming victims of criminal activities, like harassment and even robbery. Every concerned and responsible citizen feels that this matter is not something that can’t be brushed under the carpet as it is related to the safety and security of females.
Azhar Ahmed, a research scholar, feels that this issue is a concerning matter for every citizen, not just females. “Being a brother, friend, and colleague, the crime against women always makes me question where we are heading as a society. In Karachi, most women stay out of their homes for 8 to 10 hours every day for the purpose of work; the issue of inadequate public restrooms for women is alarming and requires urgent attention. This issue is of utmost importance among other problems of the city as it directly affects their safety. It is unfortunate that women marchers have different demands to celebrate, the patriarchal society does not care about women, and it seems as if the administration of Karachi has a multitude of issues or reasons that it chooses not to address this serious issue,” laments Azhar.
Amanullah, a student currently enrolled at the University of Karachi, expresses his thoughts, “In heavily populated areas, there is often lack of adequate public toilet facilities for women. Certain public restrooms lack basic amenities like soap and secure doors, opting instead for flimsy curtains. Public toilets are often poorly maintained and can be unhygienic for women. In my view, poor hygiene can harm women’s health, making them more susceptible to bacterial infections. This poses a serious risk to women and their safety and privacy.”
According to Sabina Umer, a researcher, and lecturer in the Department of Islamic Learning at the University of Karachi, many women, including herself, choose to use mall restrooms rather than city toilets, “Many women avoid using public restrooms due to concerns about safety and inadequate sanitation facilities. Furthermore, there is a shortage of water and insufficient focus on hygiene. Moreover, pests such as lizards, cockroaches, and other insects are present in dirty public toilets. On the other hand, shopping malls offer a much more favourable and hygienic environment with readily available soap and other essential amenities, and cleanliness is also maintained,” observes Sabina.
Faryal Gohar, a social development professional, has expressed her concern with the inadequate bathroom facilities in the city and the unethical behaviour openly exhibited by some men in society, “Why is it only mandatory for malls to provide toilet facilities on their premises and not everywhere else? In Japan, they have installed portable toilets on bus stands, and we Pakistanis are still fighting to have toilets in common places. I have observed males using female toilets in public places, which is ethically inappropriate behaviour. I have personally experienced this issue and had to walk to an institute to use the toilet, as a result,” says a disgruntled Faryal.
A student of University of Karachi named Maham Jamil has also spoken about the challenges that mothers face when looking for a safe and appropriate location to change their baby’s diapers in public areas due to the lack of accessibility of females restrooms, “It can be challenging for mothers with babies to find a suitable place to change their babies’ diapers in public areas where there is already scarcity of proper restrooms. The government must prioritise the construction and maintenance of female public toilets in all public spaces, including schools, workplaces, parks, and near public transportation,” urges Maham.
Sana Rafique, a social activist and an IT expert working at a renowned corporation, voices, “Karachi is grappling with a major problem - lack of proper public restrooms for women. This leaves them with no choice but to either endure discomfort or resort to unhygienic options like using public spaces or privately owned facilities that may not always be accessible or appropriate. This issue requires urgent attention.”
It is important to have clean and safe facilities available to ensure women don’t face any hurdles, especially when they are going through their menstrual cycles. If these restrooms are not accessible, women may be forced to use unsanitary alternatives. Being unable to find a suitable place to change sanitary pads during their monthly cycles, also results in a lot of mental stress for women.
Nisha Yaseen, a school teacher, emphasises that the lack of access to female restrooms in public places results in stressful situations for women, adding more to the mental stress they face being a part of a patriarchal society. “With no proper place to ease ourselves, searching for a working and clean toilet is quite stressful. The chances of developing Urinary Tract Infection also increases, that may put our health at risk,” fears Nisha.
Anoosha demands authorities work on providing this essential facility to the female population of Karachi, “It’s frustrating to see the lack of public toilets for women in Karachi. It’s not just inconvenient, but it’s also a safety concern. Women have to hold it in or risk going to unsafe places. Additionally, individuals with bladder problems may struggle to retain urine for extended periods. After giving birth, many women experience weakened bladder muscles which can make it difficult to control urination. It is important to provide female restrooms, as they are a necessity for women and not a luxury. This is a basic necessity that needs to be addressed by the government. It’s about time they prioritise building clean and separate toilets for women all over the city,” voices Anoosha.
Having separate restrooms for women promotes inclusivity and gender equality, ensuring that everyone has equal access to public facilities. It also promises a safe and secure environment for women without worrying about looking for a secure place if they need to relieve themselves. It’s essential to acknowledge that having female restrooms in the city is vital in ensuring their fundamental right to adequate sanitation. Failing to address this issue means not giving women the dignity and respect they deserve as valuable contributors to our society.
Sanobar Nadir is a Mass Communication Research Scholar and a freelance content writer.