Stalled out? Why women may cheer Shanghai's gender-free public toilet.

China's financial capital opens its first such facility Saturday – World Toilet Day – in hopes it will address  a key gender disparity in access to sanitation: wait times. 

Michael Holtz/The Christian Science Monitor
Shanghai's first all-gender public toilet opens Saturday in celebration of the third annual World Toilet Day.

Qian Min, an on-site supervisor for public toilets, has long gone out of her way to help women avoid lengthy lines.

“If they wanted to use the men’s room, I would help them guard the door,” she says, knowing firsthand what it’s like to be in their position. “Sometimes I’ve had to wait for 45 minutes to an hour myself.”

Helping women sneak into the men’s room will be a thing of the past at Ms. Qin’s new posting: Shanghai’s first all-gender public toilet. The bathroom is intended to help reduce waiting times for women, who have long faced inadequate public facilities in cities across China.

Ms. Qian says she hopes the new bathroom will help fix that. It’s scheduled to open Saturday in celebration of the third annual World Toilet Day, which seeks to raise international awareness about insufficient access to sanitation. 

The male-to-female toilet disparity is a problem worldwide. Men’s facilities are usually equipped with urinals in addition to toilets, increasing their capacity to handle traffic. 

“This is an experiment,” says Qian, adding that the Shanghai government will build more if the public response to it is positive. “I think it will work.”

The bathroom is situated in a scenic riverside park near Shanghai’s financial district. In addition to 10 all-gender stalls, it has a separate men-only room with four urinals, and another for people with disabilities and those with children.

Fishermen on the opposite bank have few opinions about the new facility. Whereas the mere mention of the words “all-gender,” “unisex,” or “gender neutral” in the United States might elicit a passionate response about transgender rights, the concept is met with a shrug by a man who gives his name as Mr. Wang.  

“There’s nothing unusual about it,” he says as he baits his hook with a worm. “I’d use it, no problem.”

But whether women feel it’s safe and private enough to use remains to be seen.  

“Why don’t they divide men and women?” asks Gu Guixiang, a nearby female resident. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable using it.”

Women’s rights activists argue that it’s waiting times, not toilet seats, that should be addressed equally. Li Tingting, a leading women’s rights activist in Beijing, says women spend an average of 89 seconds on each bathroom visit, compared with 39 seconds for men.

'Occupy Men's Rooms'

In 2012, a group of young women launched the “Occupy Men’s Rooms” movement to highlight the disparity. Two years later, 23 Chinese students, architects, and engineers petitioned the government to revise draft legislation that called for 1.5 women’s toilets for every men’s toilet. They wanted the ratio raised to 2 to 1.

On Thursday, their demands were partially answered. The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development announced that the new standard would be 3 to 2 in most public areas, and 2 to 1 in heavily trafficked spots. It will go into effect Dec. 1.

Ms. Li, who was detained last year while planning a campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation, says she is emboldened by how much progress has been made for by the “Occupy” campaign for women. Now she wants to help transgender people achieve similar access to public toilets.

“In China, LGBT issues are still not very mainstream,” she says. “It’s not something most Chinese pay attention to.”  

Many urban Chinese are well aware of the lack of public toilets for women, including men who have to wait for their female friends or partners. But educating them about the challenges transgender people face will require more work, says Yang Gang of the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute.

As the manager of the institute’s all-gender toilet project, Mr. Yang lobbies companies and private businesses around Beijing to establish all-gender bathrooms and to hang signs to indicate they have done so. The project has signed up nearly 40 businesses – mostly bars, restaurants, and nongovernmental organizations – since launching in May. Yang says he hopes to double that number soon.

“The key is to raise people’s awareness about gender identity,” he says. “My hope is that this project will help start a conversation.”

Shanghai isn’t the first Chinese city to install an all-gender public toilet. The southwestern city of Chongqing and the northeastern city of Shenyang have also opened them in recent years, according to Chinese media reports. Yang says he has yet to see the Beijing government build one in a public location in the capital.  

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