As the driver snakes his head out of the car window to gauge how far the traffic has stretched, Reema (not her real name) clenches her fist in anguish. We have been sitting in traffic for one and a half hour now, and we’re not even halfway through.
Reema is in urgent need to access a toilet, and there is no way out – literally – as we sit stuck in a gridlock that stretches as far as the eye can see.
So she waits, holding it in. And the streets of Dhaka wait along.
Traffic has become one of the ugliest realities of living in Dhaka. And it is getting progressively worse. Just three years ago, the same distance that I could commute in 30 minutes, today takes me at least 1.5hours. And I predict, it is going to keep getting worse.
According to a 2013 report, Bangladesh loses, through excess fuel cost, about $196.4m per year due to traffic congestion. While this causes a huge dent on the economy, there are other consequences of traffic on human lives – especially women.
With a growth in population of women workers, there is an obvious increase in number of women who commute in the capital. In the past few decades, women have come out to work in various fields – starting from day labourers to social work to corporate-level jobs. At the same time, traffic has gotten progressively worse in the capital. The reasons vary from construction work, to city beautification to the much scoffed-at “VIP movement” wherein roads are blocked for miles during the time when a minister or head of state commutes.
What hasn’t changed, however, is healthy and hygienic - or lack thereof - access to public toilets for women. Or the level of street harassment women face when they’re in the public space.
Stuck in reverse
According to a 2015 article in the New York Times, there are 67 public toilets for about 15 million residents, out of which many have no running water or electricity. When asked, many women say they either don’t know where the public toilets are or flinch at the thought of the stench that surrounds the toilets, something that heavily discourages them from going in at all.
As a result, for the time that they are stuck in traffic, women don’t have access to proper toilets – a privilege many men have. Thus, for women, the option is to hold it in for as long as they are stuck in traffic – and sometimes, that can be hours on end.
This poses severe health risks for women, say health officials.
“This is a huge problem,” says Professor Dr Samina Chowdhury. “Because of this, many women – and girls – acquire a practice of drinking less water.”
Nusrat Manji, who commutes daily from Uttara to Tejgaon for work, says she carries her water bottle but doesn’t drink unless absolutely necessary. Nusrat, who uses private transportation, takes 2.5-3hours to go a distance of 17km.
Nusrat isn’t alone. Many women refrain from drinking water before getting on the road, lest they have to sit in heavy traffic and/or be in need to access the severeyly unhygienic and dilapidated public toilets.
“If there is a possibility of high traffic, especially due to VIP blocks [roadblock due to movement of high officials and ministers], I refrain from drinking liquid before I head out,” says Abeer Rajbeen, who takes 1-2 hours daily to commute 20kms.
Abeer has suffered multiple times from UTI for not being able to access the toilet when necessary, and has thus formed a habit of not taking any liquid before heading out.
Such practices can have an adverse effect on women’s health, says Dr Chowdhury, a gynaecologist who has written extensively about women’s health. “As a result, the amount of water required for the body is not met, and so [the woman] is not hydrated enough.”
In a country like Bangladesh, with its climate often hitting really high temperature, it is important for people to remain hydrated. But women are left with no alternative since, as mentioned above, drinking too much water is also problematic given how long they have to hold it in, which may also cause infections and disease.
While men are also prone to such diseases, there is a considerable difference in the comfort of and access to public toilets for men. While many men may prefer not to use public toilets, in case of an urgent need, it is a facility they can still use as a last resort. The simple difference in the way the toilets are set up also makes a difference – often, many toilets for women are designed in a way that requires their skin to come in contact with the toilet seat, which in a public place, can host a lot of germs.
As a result, it is easier for women to contract infections as well, says Dr Chowdhury. Furthermore, she adds, for many women, it is quite discomforting to be travelling at all during their menstrual cycle.
“To sit for so long in traffic with such discomfort can give a lot of mental stress to women as well,” says Dr Chowdhury.
“A similar challenge is seen among many working mothers – they often reconsider going for jobs when they realise that extra hours have to be spent on the road just commuting,” she says.
Furthermore, there is an issue of proper toilets even at the workplace, says Dr Chowdhury.
“Many workplaces don’t even have proper washrooms for women, so many women tend to hold it till they come back home. But then she spends most of her time in traffic on the road.
“And usually, these places will be male-dominant so they completely forget how important it is for women to have separate toilets," says Dr Chowdhury.
Out of traffic, into fire
While many may opt to walk instead of sitting in traffic, for women in Dhaka that is a jump out of the frying pan into the fire. Often the streets are in terrible state and cannot be used for walking. Just one episode of rain can flood certain roads and make it impossible for people – men, women alike – to walk. Even worse, street harassment and lack of security for women discourage many from walking on the streets.
“Sometimes, when the traffic is unbearable, I start walking,” says Reema, adding that she has to carry an extra scarf to make sure she is dressed “decently.”
Nusrat says while sitting in traffic once, she witnessed a woman, while waiting on a sidewalk, being groped openly by a man, something that has discouraged her from opting to walk.
Rongon Ahmed, another Dhaka dweller who on public transport takes three hours to commute through a distance of 30 minutes, says she carries tissues and scarves, as well as flip-flops for rainy days.
Reema adds that on occasions when she opts to walk in the evening, she feels unsafe as many of the sidewalks have streetlamps that don’t work.
“Sometimes, the parked buses hide [the sidewalks] from the street, and I feel unsafe to walk on the sidewalk because it’s so dark,” says Reema, who has still had to use the sidewalks many times to avoid getting late.
The anecdotes of these women show that commuting in Dhaka requires a lot of preparation – whether it’s with food, or tools for protection in case they have to start walking. While of course it can be argued that men face similar ordeals, there are certain challenges that are unique for women, and this requires extensive research.
The grim reality of traffic in Dhaka is not anymore limited to the time wasted on it, or the amount of chaos it creates. Traffic has seeped, literally, into our system – whether through air pollution, or mental health effects, or the various forms of health issues it can create. Many women I spoke to for this article said they would consider telling children not to take too much liquid before leaving the house, which is a concerning practice.
Moreover, given the male-dominated nature of our society, it is likely that many issues that specifically affect women slip through the cracks. While there have been some studies on the notorious traffic of Dhaka, there remains room for vast research on how this reality affects men and women differently because the realities of men and women are different in Bangladesh.
And unless we acknowledge this, we’ll be stuck in a deadlock.