Toilet Trouble

Donald Trump’s comments about Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break during the latest presidential debate were ridiculous and offensive, but at least he’s bringing attention to ongoing gender inequities.
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Democratic president candidate Hillary  Clinton greets people following the debate at Saint  Anselm College on December 19, 2015, in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty  Images)

Democratic president candidate Hillary Clinton greets people following the debate at Saint Anselm College on December 19, 2015, in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Donald Trump has once again produced a great favor for girls and women all over the globe. Previously, after attacking Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, he inadvertently brought attention to the problem of ongoing taboos about menstruation. This time, he has directed the media’s gaze toward the ongoing gender inequities of the world’s available toilets, as noted in the headlines of the Washington Post and BBC News—“Donald Trump Says Clinton’s Bathroom Break During the Debate Is ‘Too Disgusting’ to Talk About” and “Donald Trump Mocks ‘Disgusting’ Clinton Toilet Break,” respectively.

Trump’s comment that “it was too disgusting to talk about” Hillary Clinton’s delayed return to the debate stage after a commercial break was exceedingly offensive. It did, however, indirectly highlight the fact she had to walk a much longer distance to the women’s toilet compared to the more conveniently located toilets for the male candidates. Nonetheless, Trump’s misguided comments have brought to the forefront a critical issue that hampers global gender equality: the inadequacy of toilets for girls and women in countries around the world.

The continued issue of inadequate size and location of toilets in high-income countries for girls and women is not only one of gender equity, but one that poses challenges to health and productivity.

Across the globe, 2.4 billion people have inadequate sanitation, according to a recent report from UNICEF and the World Health Organization. Given that half of the world’s population is made up of girls and women, this represents a significant number of females who lack private, safe spaces in which to urinate, defecate, and manage their monthly menstruation in comfort and dignity. I can say, as an experienced global health researcher focused on the water and sanitation challenges faced by menstruating girls and women in low-income countries, that Trump’s comment was a timely reminder that toilet-related gender inequities are not limited to just lower-income countries. They also harm the dignity and economic progress of girls and women in high-income countries, none more so than those who are homeless.

In the case of Clinton’s delayed return to the stage, there was gender inequity in the extra distance she had to walk in the three allotted minutes of the commercial break, and a lack of gendered forethought by the debate organizers about the reality that a woman generally requires more time than a man in the bathroom.

But in contrast to presidential candidates’ toilet-related needs, there is much that can be written about the significant challenges of inadequate water and sanitation in the poorer regions of the world. Almost 50 percent of the schools in the least-developed countries have inadequate water and sanitation facilities. This hampers schoolgirls and female teachers’ abilities to manage menstruation and participate actively in educational environments. In many countries, continued open defecation practices create anxiety for girls and women who seek out places to relieve themselves unseen before dawn or after dark. This places girls and women at increased risk of violence, including rape. The scope of these sanitation-related challenges and inequities far outweighs those faced by girls and women in the higher-income countries of the world.

Nevertheless, it is important to take this Trump moment, as it were, to highlight the inadequacies of toilet facilities for girls and women in all countries. If instead of Hillary Clinton, for example, the female candidate in the presidential debate had been a new mother, she likely would have struggled to find a nearby, private, clean place in which to pump breast milk quickly during a commercial break. And there is likely not a girl or woman in the United States, United Kingdom, or other high-income region who has not stood in an inordinately long line waiting to use the ladies' room while watching the men, with their increased numbers of urinals in equally sized bathrooms, zipping in and out at twice if not thrice the speed. As Soraya Chemaly pointed out, even in the Senate, women senators did not get a bathroom anywhere near the speaker’s lobby until 2011.

The continued issue of inadequate size and location of toilets in high-income countries for girls and women is not only one of gender equity, but one that poses challenges to health and productivity. Maybe the next U.S. president, be it a female or male, will push for gender equitable toilet standards not only across the country, but around the world. It’s an issue that reflects both human rights and common sense, and should have long ago become a non-issue.

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