A school memory, in retrospect, reveals the terms and conditions of the fundamental right to health.
2 minutes read
In school we never talked about anyone except ourselves; nothing and no one could be more important. One fine day, we broke that rule for a minute. A friend returned from the toilets looking disturbed. She had noticed someone “suspicious” using the girl students’ toilets but could only see their shoes because of the stalls. To confirm, she waited outside the entrance for the person to leave. To her surprise, it was a housekeeping didi.
Before coming to us with the story, my friend had complained to the class teacher. When asked why she felt the need to complain, she replied because we (the girl students) could catch ‘infections’ (from the housekeeping staff), and that “they” had their separate toilets to use. The reaction in our friend group to this explanation ranged from uncomfortable silence to laughing it off. I felt like my friend had overreacted but did not have the language to tell her how and why. So I kept quiet. All of us forgot about it soon enough.
In retrospect, I had never seen the housekeeping staff toilets. Applying the logic of how the ½ in a 4 and ½ BHK is the ‘servant quarters’, my best guess is that, architecturally, their toilets were supposed to be out of sight. According to my friend, and she was not alone in her prejudice, the housekeeping staff were only allowed to enter ‘our spaces’ to clean them, because “didn’t they have separate areas for their use?” That their facilities are not the same standard as ‘ours’ is a given. It is understood as common sense, as a matter of fact, and not as a point of protest. We never stop to think that our prejudice penetrates architectural design in a way that compromises the health of women from lower-income groups and marginalised communities. We were big on ‘girl power’ in school, but our feminism clearly did not extend to all women.
My friend was prejudiced to think that people from lower-income groups and marginalised communities are not hygienic and their using ‘our toilets’ would be unsanitary. She justified her hostility through science: ‘infections’. It would not be the first time people used science to rationalise their prejudice. And like all the people before her, my friend’s science was just out-of-context misinformation. Presumably, by her use of ‘infections’ she was referring to UTIs (Urinary Tract Infections), which are not contagious, i.e. UTIs do not spread from human contact. That is a scientific fact. And so is this: lack of clean and adequate toilet facilities cause diseases,
A little introspection goes a long way in understanding that this story is not exclusive to one school, or a single group of friends. It is true for all place-settings in our lives. We are all guilty of actively enabling a culture where money and privilege guarantee better access to health, which in fact, is a fundamental right for all.