Where Do I Pee?

Public toilets are a scarcity in Bangladesh’s capital city. The ones that exist are either unusable or overcrowded with men. For Dhaka’s women - struggling with thirst, urine infections and harassment - this is an existential crisis.

When you start your morning and get ready to go to work, what is the first thing that crosses your mind? For me, it is always: Where do I pee when I am outside?

This may sound weird, but here where I live, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, it is my reality.

I asked ten female friends of mine — all of them working women — what they think about most during the day. Nine out of ten of them, especially those doing fieldwork, agreed that rather than worrying about work, or family, or other things, their one worry is always: Where do I pee?

But why is this such a concern for women in Bangladesh?

In Dhaka, people now have access to 67 public toilets — a small quantity given the city’s population of over 20 million. And even though public toilets are available in Dhaka, usable ones are still few and far between. In 2017, an Action Aid Bangladesh study in collaboration with UK Aid found that more than 90 percent of public toilets in Dhaka are inoperable. While 91.5 percent of the toilets were deemed unsanitary, 96 percent of them were found to be hazardous, and 54 percent lacked sanitation facilities. Some facilities administered by third-party organizations are deemed to be in good condition, but most of them are closed and very far away from each other. As a result, simply put: The megacity stinks. Navigating Dhaka in many areas, even in key locations with five-star hotels, is a miserable experience.

I took it upon myself to visit at least ten public bathrooms in various parts of Dhaka city to see for myself what they were like.

My first stop brought me to Dhaka New Market, where the market authorities run a public bathroom. Upon inspection, I found the bathroom to be dirty and entirely unusable. Another public toilet, located between the National Mosque and the Bangabandhu Stadium, was similarly extremely filthy. The public toilet I found in the district of Jatrabari was not even open.

While researching beforehand on the Dhaka city map, I found four public toilets in the Mohakhali area which made me quite hopeful that they would be more usable. When I went there, however, one of them was closed — the authorities had stopped allowing the facilities there. The second was an open-door system near a vegetable market, meaning the place around it is overcrowded all the time. Clearly this was a bathroom only usable for men.

The third one in Mohakhali was indeed fairly usable, although the shower was broken. The last one I found had such a long queue that after 25 minutes of waiting, I didn’t even get the chance to go in. At least some women were able to use it, though.

My next stop was one of the most populated areas of the city. I could not find any public toilets in or around Gulistan. So, no facilities for that area’s people.

Next, I went to the Shahbag area which is another one of the most crowded and busiest parts of the city. Students, artists, activists, day laborers — people from almost every profession and class come here. For them, there are only two public toilets available. The first lies behind the flower market and is extremely dark and narrow. The second remains closed most of the time, always after 9pm at night.

Going to the bathroom is clearly not an easy feat. And the many problems that arise from this lack of usable public toilets affect women a lot more than men. None of these already unsanitary public toilets are suited for women to use comfortably. So, they attempt to stay away from public restrooms all together. According to the caretakers of public toilets, only around 25 to 30 women use their restrooms between the peak hours of 2pm to 10pm. In comparison, they see around 200 to 250 men in the same time period. But what do these women do instead? How are they supposed to hold it in for the entire day?

Rather than worrying about work, or family, or other things, their one worry is always: Where do I pee?

“I try not to use the toilet until it is very necessary. As a result, I consume less water than my body requires”, says Suborna Akter Deepti, a student of Fine Arts at Dhaka University. “One has to pay five to ten Taka for using public toilets. For an insolvent woman or a student like myself who does not earn enough money, it is difficult to pay every time I use the toilet. And women cannot use overcrowded toilets frequented by men.”

The fee for using the toilets fluctuates between 5 and 15 Taka. Using the toilet to pee or defecate is charged at 5 Taka, and showers are charged at 10 Taka. 10 Taka amounts to around 11 US cents.

Providers should not be able to charge for the use of public toilets. It is technically the government who must cover the costs of maintaining these bathrooms. Instead, one pays for using the public toilets, and doesn’t even receive proper facilities, as most of the time there is no water, the shower is broken, and the lock is broken and dirty.

But Suborna is not alone in her experience. As a photojournalist, my work takes place outside; I usually spend more than 10 hours doing fieldwork. As a result, during my workdays, I simply barely drink water. After several years of fieldwork I have learned to survive the day doing this, but there are days when my survival skills can only go so far.

I usually attempt to only use public toilets in emergency situations. One day, I was in exactly one such situation. So, I visited three public toilets: Not one of them I could use. The first one was locked. The second one’s commode and flush system were broken. In the third, some men were peeing in their open washroom on my right side, while others were half-naked taking showers on my left. After noticing me, they started teasing me. If I had wanted to use the toilet at that moment, I would have had to cross them to get to the women’s toilet at the end of the corner. My search for toilets therefore clearly was not particularly successful.

According to Bhumijo, a social company that strives to improve the quality of public toilets, a survey done in Dhaka between 2016 and 2017 discovered that 80 percent of women avoid drinking water before leaving the house for fear of not finding suitable toilets. The survey also found that Dhaka would need at least 3,000 more toilets by 2020 to serve all of its people. Now, in 2022, that minimum number has not even nearly been reached.

“A hygienic environment inside a toilet is a necessity — particularly for women and children,” says Annanya Rahman, a social worker on World Toilet Day in 2021 about Bangladesh. “The Dhaka city corporation has built women-friendly toilets but they are very few in number compared to the need. Women often have to go long hours without using the toilet when outside.” The World Toilet Day was created by the UN as part of their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of guaranteeing good sanitation for all by 2030. Their data shows that Bangladesh has a long way to go to fulfill their target.

Sheikj Sabiha Alam has noticed this as well. Sabiha is a senior reporter for Prothom Alo, one of the biggest daily newspapers in Bangladesh based in the Kawran Bazar district in Dhaka. She has been working as a reporter for the last seventeen years with most of her work being in the field.

“A few years back, I assigned an intern to write about public toilets because I really wanted to know what the present situation of public bathrooms was like,” Sabiha says. “17 years ago, I had reported on a similar story. The intern visited 25 public toilets from different areas of the city — and nothing had changed.”

“I have this nightmare every morning where I wake up to see that I am using a filthy public toilet,” she adds. “It horrifies me.”

Not only does this affect working women, but also homemakers who maybe don’t work outside, but do leave the house for shopping or to take their children to school. Every year, when Junior School Certificates and Secondary School Certificate exams are held, mothers accompanying their children face toilet problems. Near the Hazaribagh Girls high school for example where these exams are held, there are no toilets anywhere, and there is no opportunity to use the available toilets at the bus stand either.

Everyone in Dhaka, rich or poor, working woman, homemaker, or student, has had to hold a full bladder on the road at some time in their lives. This is unavoidable when you live in a city with one toilet for every 215,000 people.

And unfortunately, it does not end at having to hold your bladder — a lack of toilets can be fatal. Doctors routinely warn that delaying urination is one of the major causes of Urinary Tract Infections (UTI) which particularly women are more susceptible to. According to the World Health Organization, poor sanitation is also linked to the transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio.

Dr. Razia Akter has been working as a gynecologist at Dhaka Community Medical College for the last twenty years. For every ten patients she sees, she finds four to five urinary tract infections.

“Almost every woman and girl has a UTI attack at least once a year,” Dr. Akter says. “It’s happening because they are not consuming sufficient amounts of water and holding their urine for too long, especially during menstruation.”

In my lifetime, I have been admitted to the hospital twice for urine infections. But even without it getting to that point, I experience severe pain in my lower belly at least once or twice a month. Out of ten women I spoke to from different backgrounds and ages, eight women reported experiencing the same.

According to the United Nations, about 35 percent — 2.5 billion of the planet’s 7 billion people — live without basic sanitation facilities. One in three women and girls around the world do not have access to basic usable toilets.

Every year, women’s participation in Bangladeshi business, corporate, media, and garments is increasing. They are contributing more and more to national revenue and helping our country reach a higher GDP. Even the homemakers are busy with raising the next generation. After all that, when we go outside, we are not able to find a decent toilet that is safe, has water, or is properly cleaned. Toilets in government offices, hospitals, educational institutions, bus stands, and railway stations among public places need to be checked regularly for cleanliness, water supply, and functionality. Adequate safety measures, especially in the women toilets, and proper ventilation must be provided. Is it too much to ask for, to simply be able to pee?

Figures at a glance

  • 1 toilet for every 215,000 people in Dhaka according to a 2015 study of WaterAid
  • 90% of public toilets run by the city corporations are not viable due to various factors: Insecurity issues (96%), Lack of facilities (54%), Unhygienic and dirty environment (91.5%)
  • 80% of women in Dhaka avoid drinking water before leaving the house as they think there are not enough toilets for women
  • 1+ times a year women aged between 26-65 get Urinary Tract Infection attack
  • 47 active DNCC and DSCC toilets out of 69 public toilets in Dhaka city
  • 32 important locations to get renovated public toilets. The initiative will be taken by Bhumijo at New Market, Farmgate, Moghbazar, Malibagh, Mouchak, Uttara, Mohakhali and Mirpur, among other places
  • 3,000 toilets at least will be needed in Dhaka by 2020

* The data is based on the research “Gender Responsive City Structure” conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh in 2017 as well as a survey carried out by Bhumijo from 2016-2017.

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ArtIQulate is a publication associated with the Adenauer Fellowship, a scholarship programme by the Media Programme Asia, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Ltd.
About the author

Monon Muntaka

Alumni, Diploma of Visual Journalism, Asian Center for Journalism

Monon Muntaka is a freelance journalist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Due to experiences in her early life that showed her the importance of human and women’s rights, Monon has made it her mission to unfold diverse stories on various social concerns around her. Currently, her work focuses on trauma from sexual, emotional, and physical abuse.

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