Nepali Times
When nature calls


She works for the government's women's development division and needs to travel frequently by bus all over the country. She lives in Kathmandu and tries not to travel on long distance buses. Reason: there are no bathrooms on the highways.

"Men can go and relieve themselves anywhere," says the civil servant, "but it is difficult for women." At night it is much easier, most female passengers just walk off the road and duck behind a bush.

Kala Swarnakar lives in Dang and works for the Dalit Women's Association and finds it impossible to go whenever and wherever the driver pull over. The men all clamber off and head for the nearest tree. These days, Swarnakar makes sure she drinks as little as possible while travelling. But that exposes women to dehydration. Sajana works for Step, an NGO and is from Achham. She says drivers ignore women requesting pee stops.

Dipak Khadka is a bus driver on the Kathmandu-Pokhara route, and acknowledges that long distance bus drivers and operators should pay special attention to the comfort and security of passengers, especially women. But he argues that he stops the bus when the conductor tells him to do so and blames his assistant.

These days the ordeal of long-distance buses is compounded by the highway gridlocks caused by security checks, bandas, booby-trapped barriers and even pitched gun battles along the highways. But there is a hidden advantage to all this, says Khadka, because security checks have male and female personnel and passengers can use their facilities. These makeshift latrines made by the security forces with tents and fenced by grass and wood provide some relief to passengers.

But lawyer Basanti Shrestha, who is a frequent traveller to the districts from Kathmandu, says she has never used the army's toilets and hasn't seen others use them either because of the lack of privacy.

Swarnakar's greatest fear is that the bus drives off with all her belongings while she is trying to find a private spot. She can't very well carry all her luggage when she takes a break.

Most women passengers say their number one priority is to have clean and accessible lavatories along the highways, and drivers should stop only at places where such facilities are available. The prevalent custom is for drivers pull up at restaurants where they have a business relationship, and women are forced to use the rest rooms even if they are filthy.

The regional manager of Nepal Water for Health (NEWAH), Saraswati Khanal, has suffered the travails of bus travel in Nepal and is thankful that her NGO has actually tried to do something about it. Between 1991-1994, NEWAH built seven public toilets for bus passengers along highways in Damauli, Dhulikhel, Khairenitar, Abukhaireni, Dulegaunda, Saurahachok and Pokhara-Baglung bus parks. They function well, and are managed by local people.

Now, WATERAID and NEWAH in cooperation with Kathmandu Metropolitan City, have completed a study on public toilet management in the city while its Biratnagar regional office is conducting a study on public toilets.

When these studies will actually go into the implementation phase is anyone's guess. But till then, women passengers have no choice but to drink as little as possible and be more assertive in getting the bus to stop where they want to and not where the driver wants to. (Sancharika Lekhmala)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)