Roads are the circulatory system of a nation, and highways its arteries and veins. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people travel through them, with each journey potentially lasting hours. Among the myriad of challenges along the highway, one prominent issue that plagues highway travelers is the availability, functionality, and accessibility of public toilets.

In the hierarchy of human needs, sanitation stands tall as a fundamental requirement for health, dignity, and well-being. Sanitation experiences can be particularly challenging for female travelers, and new evidence has shown it is especially challenging along highways.

Aawaaj News, in September, conducted a comprehensive survey of thirty public toilets along sections of the Prithivi Highway and Mahendra Highway, and the entirety of B P Highway to assess the status of facilities available. The survey showed, while availability of public toilets, complimented by increased availability at commercial eateries and establishments and mandatory public toilets at petrol pumps did not prove a very big issue, it showed that significant improvements could be made in terms of improving toilet experiences, especially for females.

Safety & Privacy:

A broken latch in one of the thirty public toilets surveyed along Nepal's highways. (Image: Barsha Shah / Aawaaj News)

A broken latch in one of the thirty public toilets surveyed along Nepal’s highways. (Image: Barsha Shah / Aawaaj News)

Of the surveyed toilets, 70% featured segregated facilities for both genders, while the remaining 30% did not. This means that over two-thirds of the toilets had a separate area for female cubicles and male cubicles – with different entrances. But looking beyond availability of cubicles, toilets would need to make significant improvement on safety and privacy, because contrary to the existing situation, 92% of toilet users said “safety and privacy was an important issue when using public toilets along highways”. Furthermore, more than 50% of the 216 toilet users who had recently travelled said they had refused to use a service due to its conditions. This is a worrying figure, especially since holding urine for a prolonged period of time, while causing physical discomfort also has other health risks such as increased risk of UTI. Similarly, three users, all females also said they refused to hydrate themselves during journeys due to the fear of public toilets.

Substandard hygiene conditions create a distressing environment for travelers. This is especially true for female travelers, who face bigger concerns about privacy and security. There were broken door locks, even broken doors, combined with dark and small cubicles with little to no lighting, and many more issues.

Menstrual Hygiene Management:

Due to the lack of proper dustbins, female travellers have to wedge used sanitary napkins. (Image: Barsha Shah / Aawaaj News)

Due to the lack of dustbins, female travellers have to wedge used sanitary napkins. (Image: Barsha Shah / Aawaaj News)

Every girl and woman should be able to manage her period with dignity. Access to safe and dignified menstruation is a fundamental need and a human right. In countries like Nepal, where menstruation is already stigmatised, and society is yet to speak about it openly, a menstruating person should not have to face difficulty while managing her period at a public facility. However, a majority of the public toilets surveyed did not perform well on menstrual hygiene management.

Only one of the thirty toilets surveyed provided affordable menstrual hygiene products within the toilet. 66.7% of toilets provided soap and water, and 70% toilets had a mirror at an appropriate height. There was also a lack of a disposal bin or a system for disposing of used menstrual pads and other products – some sanitary products are seen being disposed off in wedges on the walls, or in open bins made of cardboard. Without access to essentials like sanitary napkins, clean water and soap, personal hygiene is compromised, increasing the risk of infections, and contributing to unsanitary conditions.

Monitoring mandatory public toilets at petrol pumps:

A public toilet along the Mahendra Highway in Nepal. (Image: Dhan Khaling / Aawaaj News)

A public toilet at a petrol pump along the Mahendra Highway in Nepal. (Image: Dhan Khaling / Aawaaj News)

During the survey, one bus driver told a harrowing story of when he was transporting a pregnant woman along the Mahendra Highway. “We stopped at a public toilet inside a petrol pump because she needed to go. The toilet was disgusting, looking like it had not been cleaned in months, and the way it was clogged made it pretty much unusable. The woman went in, came right back out, and vomited from the stench and what she saw inside. But because she had no other choice, she went back in and used it anyway. It was difficult to cope with the situation, but what other choice do we have?”  As per Nepal Oil Corporation regulations, fuel stations are mandated to maintain public toilets. However, many toilets along inside petrol pumps lack proper signage, are not cleaned regularly, and lack clean water and soap. This situation, and results of the survey, stress yet again on the need for Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC) to monitor the toilets at fuel stations to ensure they meet certain standards.

Old challenges, new opportunities:

A user urinates during a stop along the B P Highway in Nepal. (Image: Dhan Khaling / Aawaaj News)

A person urinates during a stop along the B P Highway in Nepal. (Image: Dhan Khaling / Aawaaj News)

As electric vehicles boom in Nepal, requiring public vehicles to stop for regular charging along the highway, charging stations have become rest areas, where passengers get off vehicles to relieve themselves. During Aawaaj’s survey, there was a charging station where electric vehicles pause for around an hour to recharge. However, the absence of toilets at such locations prompts passengers to resort to nearby jungle areas for sanitation; even during our short survey stay at the charging station, a passenger of an electric bus relieved himself openly. Would the regular frequency of this not raise health and lifestyle concerns for people living and operating businesses in the vicinity? Would this not put into question Nepal’s Open-Defecation-Free (ODF) status merited in 2019? While a man was able to relieve himself in the bushes, women wouldn’t be able to do the same because of higher risks of infections as well as a bigger hit to dignity from the nature of the action.

The availability and functionality of a toilet in terms of its female friendliness is a challenge – it is not easy to achieve this and the road ahead is more of a highway than a street. Toilet facilities should go hand-in-hand with infrastructure planning, especially at locations where vehicles frequently pause for charging or other purposes. Similarly, as the government gears up to observe sanitation year, clear policies on standards of public toilets is essential, including female-friendly and accessibility features. Better coordination between the different tiers of government could also help achieve Nepal meet its sanitation goals.