Women and toilets: A tale of more than just two cities

There’s always a sense of familiarity in the way we talk about women and toilets. It’s the place where a woman readies for her day and unwinds at the end of it. Bathrooms are where we go to smooth our hair, relax in a hot bath, or share a secret laugh with girlfriends.

But this experience is known only to a few. For too many women, toilets are a place of rape, exposure, and shame.

The United Nations reports that 2.5 billion people lack access to decent sanitation. Temporary toilets or communal toilets located far from the home often leave women at risk to criminals who wait in the night, while makeshift toilets at home leave many without privacy.

For World Toilet Day, which falls on 19 November, Panos Pictures worked with Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor to document the experiences of women and toilets around the world. Although toilets are a basic amenity required to answer nature’s call in privacy and safety, for people around the world they have become a space of degradation and horror.

The striking images in the exhibition tell the stories of people for whom the privacy and safety of a clean toilet may never be realised. A woman named Renee in Australia chose to build an outdoor toilet in the countryside where she now lives, while Matrine from Haiti is forced to use a hole in the ground outside her house with no privacy.

“I hate using the toilet. Sometimes men peek over the fence. There is no privacy,” said Flora from Maputo, Mozambique, while Isabela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil said: “”My toilet means comfort to me.”

Just last year, the bodies of two toddlers were found in a public toilet in Diepsloot informal settlement near Johannesburg. In August this year, two girls aged 14 and 15 were gang-raped and hanged after they went to the toilet at night in Katra, in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh.

Poor sanitation is a worldwide crisis, and its consequences have devastating effects on vulnerable communities faced with no alternative. As the world collectively acknowledges the existence and impact of a lack of access to proper toilets on World Toilet Day, perhaps it’s time a solution was found.

Get a glimpse into the experiences and inequalities of toilets around the world documented by Panos Pictures and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor on BBC here.