Today (November 19th) is World Toilet Day. It was initiated by the UN, to draw attention to global problems of lack of sanitation and suitable toilet facilities around the world. Last week I was asked to write a piece for the Yorkshire Post (a regional UK newspaper) on the issue of toilet provision, to be published to coincide with World Toilet Day.
Having written it, however, I was told today that the piece concentrated too much on ‘minority issues’, so wasn’t suitable for the Yorkshire Post. After some ranting and outrage from friends on Facebook (to summarise: even white cis hetero non-disabled men use toilets! And this isn’t even the point!!!), I have been asked to replicate the article here, which I have done below (although fuller and more articulate piece covering the same subjects can be found written by Charlotte Jones on the Connected Communities blog).
Before I reproduce the article as a blog, though, I have also decided to use this as an opportunity to reflect on some thoughts that I’ve been having around World Toilet Day.
Understandably, in the Around the Toilet project, we have been asked a few times if we are doing anything for World Toilet Day. Up until this point, we haven’t really engaged with it. This was partly to do with having other stuff going on (e.g. our Re-Imagining Toilets event next week!), but I’ve also felt wary of doing a World Toilet Day Thing for other reasons.
1) Our project is small scale and UK-based concentrating particularly on UK – based queer, trans and disabled people’s experiences of accessing toilets, and most our conversations have revolved around the UK. This isn’t to in anyway deny the importance of global issues around toilet access, but currently we are thinking fairly locally.
2) I am always wary narratives around ‘international development’ and of charity as a way of solving problems of poverty caused by colonialism, white supremacy, oppression and global capitalism.
‘Toilet Twinning’ (i.e. paying for your “twin your loo with a latrine halfway around the world, in a country of your choosing“) seems to be one of the major initiatives of World Toilet Day, and very much works from this charity model. Like all forms of ‘charity’, this requires, among other things, the recipient of charity to be grateful of the more powerful donor, and therefore remain in this position of relative powerlessness. The roots of global inequality; capitalism, colonialism etc. are left unchallenged (or indeed, strengthened). (This is an illuminating blog post about the colonial taxes that some African countries are paying to France, and how colonialism and charitable discourses – i.e. you should be grateful – are so intertwined).
There’s also this message from Ban Ki-moon which heads the UN’s World Toilet Day site.
We must continue to educate and protect communities at risk, and to change cultural perceptions and long-standing practices that hinder the quest for dignity
It’s message of ‘educating’, ‘changing cultural perceptions and long-standing practices’ and a ‘quest for dignity’ reeks of colonial discourse – ‘civilising the uncivilised’ and so on.
3) The Around the Toilet project considers the provision of toilets to directly relate to issues of whose bodies and ways of being in the world are allowed, and whose are violently denied. Around The Toilet’s engagement with global issues of sanitation, therefore, should always bear in mind neo-colonial discourses under which World Toilet Day functions, as colonialism and white supremacy continue to devalue and dehumanise people of colour. Our place in addressing global issues of sanitation, therefore, would require much more thinking through of these complex issues in relation to our own position and privilege, and stepping back to consider how we can be allies in a wider struggle.
Despite the above, when I was asked last week, I did agree to write the piece for the Yorkshire Post, as I felt it was a good opportunity to get wider coverage for our toilet campaigning.
I was aware that we would have to jump through some loop holes, the first of which was that it had to have a single authors name on it, when it was actually a piece written collaboratively between Charlotte Jones, Emily Cuming, Lisa Procter and I. We also knew that we’d have to appeal to a broad audience and not appear ‘too radical’ (we haven’t mentioned the word ‘capitalism’ once, and refrained from any explicit thoughts about World Toilet Day, such as the above). This is the resulting piece that is ‘too focused on minorities’ (I’m sure the Yorkshire Post will regret rejecting it when they see all the hits coming to my blog!)
“World Toilet Day takes place on November 19th every year to recognise the lack of sanitation facilities in the majority world (or ‘developing’ countries). There are global problems around sanitation, poverty and water quality which current campaigns seek to improve.
But there are issues that affect us closer to home as well. Led by me, a group of university researchers in the north of England have been assessing what state our public toilets are in – if we can find them of course.
What do you do when you’re in your local town centre and need the loo? Do you nip into the closest fast food outlet or coffee shop – hoping that you won’t have to buy anything, need a key code, or be asked to leave? Do you take the five-floor trek to the top of a department store?
What if you’re in the park? Are you lucky enough to be in one of the few parks which still has functioning public toilets – and fingers crossed, they’re clean and don’t require spare change?
In the Around the Toilet project, people have shared stories many of us can relate to.
From wobbly experiences in cramped, dirty train carriages, to worries about being overheard or walked in on when toilets don’t offer enough privacy, especially in schools.
We also learnt that toilets can be a lucrative business – the 30p it costs for a trip to the loo in most train stations mounts up to millions in profit.
Generally there seems to be a consensus that it can be a struggle to find a space that meets the needs of the most unifying of human experiences.
Yet for some, accessing a suitable toilet is more difficult than for others. A key theme of our workshops centred around facilities for transgender and disabled people.
Trans people spoke of the difficulties in finding a gender neutral space in which they could go to the toilet without others making assumptions about their gender, or being accused of being in the ‘wrong’ toilet.
Disabled people, too, planned journeys around suitable loos. They told us that even those toilets labelled ‘accessible’ often weren’t suitable – too small for some wheelchairs, not containing Changing Places equipment such as an adult hoist and changing bed, or used as a storage cupboard with the assumption that ‘no disabled people actually come here’.
Access for disabled people means more than wheelchair access and ramps, although these are important too.
We’ve discussed how the recent closure of public toilets due to funding cuts impacts particularly strongly on homeless people, who are often wrongly viewed as ‘dangerous’ or ‘a nuisance’ when they use a public toilet, but equally ‘anti-social’, and even fined, when they’re forced to use the streets as a toilet.
The conclusion of the project is that public toilets aren’t currently suitable for the diverse population of the UK. The buildings, designs, and signage of toilets implicitly include some of us, whilst excluding others. The lack of accessible toilets for disabled people illustrates the expectation of an ‘able’ body. Presumptions that only women will require baby changing facilities leads to difficulties for people of other genders caring for children.
As participants pointed out, restricted access to toilets also has an impact on the ways people plan their days, making some feel unsafe or excluded from their communities, and sometimes unable to freely leave the house.
Although we started with the apparently mundane issue of toilets, the discussions highlighted a much broader range of social issues of inequality and prompted questions about toilet access and specific requirements for parents, children, older people, and people from various ethnicities and faiths, amongst others.
The project ends at the end of November but you can still make your views known at our website: www.aroundthetoilet.wordpress.com, and Twitter: @cctoilettalk.”