An elderly tourist slipped the coin into the slot for the umpteenth time, waiting for the sliding door of the She-toilet to open. The door did not budge. She squinted against the red light on the machine, as she moved away to try her luck with the second machine. Two companions joined her and banged on the sides of the electronic toilet to force it open.
Mary watched this scene unfold from her juice stall, opposite the twin She-toilets at the Museum Junction. "See, this has been happening far too often these days," she told the irate tourists and guided them to the toilet complex on the Museum premises.
When they were installed last year, the electronic toilets were hailed as the answer to clean sanitation. The Kerala State Women's Development Corporation (KSWDC) placed bulk order for the novel contraption and dubbed them She-toilets. There was crying need for such facility, considering the fact that public lavatory complexes in the city were poorly maintained, few in numbers and in unhygienic environs.
But, soon reports began to appear about how electronic toilets were not user-friendly — the multi-coloured buttons, and automatic opening and closing of the doors confounded users. There were complaints about the positioning of the toilets in some parts of the city.
But, Mary does not have a problem with this new-fangled machine. She welcomed the project when it was launched, for she no longer had to take long walks to the city Corporation's toilet complex. She's been a vendor at the Musuem Junction for 12 years.
One time, the power went off abruptly and the cabin was plunged into darkness. She could not see any switches, or figure out a way to open the door. There were times when there was no water either. "They raise your hopes about the benefits of a new project, but fail at following-through."
Sita Dasan of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) says she is not averse to the idea of She-toilets provided they are consistently maintained. The state of public toilets in the city, especially in congested areas such as Thampanoor and East Fort, is despicable, she says.
"Moreover, the caretakers of most of these pay-and-use facilities are men. Naturally, this puts off women from using it," she says, referring particularly to shopping complexes and markets across the city such as Connemara at Palayam.
A study ‘Are Cities in Kerala Safe for Women’, published a couple of years ago by the Sakhi Women’s Resource Centre, United Nations Women, and Jagori, based in New Delhi, identified the lack of toilets for women at public venues as a matter of grave concern. The few that exist see women often subject to vulgar comments.
Managing Director of KSWDC P.T.M. Sunish said he along with other officials had visited the 23 She-toilets set up in the capital. "While we do have plans for expansion, we will proceed only after the necessary rectifications have been made to the existing ones," he said. The government has sanctioned the installation of 25 more She-toilets.
They are currently preparing a report that lists the issues associated with each system – for instance, the one at Museum directly faces the busy junction. "That will be realigned and a fence will be put around both the toilets here," he said. These specific corrective measures will be implemented.