Faced with the same situation Mona Bidayati found herself in a few years ago, many people would seriously rethink using a public restroom. In 2009, Mona was heading to a camping trip in Bogor and stopped at the city’s train station to use the toilet. It was filthy, wet and dark.
“I believe it was there that I caught a urinary tract infection. I had this strange feeling in my stomach not long after using the toilet,” she said.
Soon after, she started experiencing burning sensations when urinating. “I’m better now, but the pain flares up when I am very tired,” she said.
Mona has vowed to never use public toilets — except in clean shopping malls and hotels. When on the road, she avoids bathroom breaks unless absolutely necessary. “Public toilets have actually improved, but they are still wet and dirty,” she said.
Naning Adiwoso, the founder of the Indonesian Toilet Association (ATI), believes Mona’s experience is not an isolated case. She said toilets were rife with problems most people chose not to address.
“Indonesians think of the toilet as the kamar kecil [small room] at the back used only for urinating or defecating,” she said. “It’s wet and small and there are no rules about its use.”
It’s 10 years since World Toilet Day was first observed on Nov. 19, yet Indonesia still has serious problems with its loos.
The World Toilet Organization recently placed Indonesia 12th out of 18 Asian countries in assessing the cleanliness of its toilets. It was the worst in Asean.
A dirty toilet can host 80 million germs that cause a range of diseases nobody would want, like genital warts and infections.
“The accepted behavior is that people don’t want to clean up after themselves or think that another person is going to use the facility after them,” Naning said.
Many also don’t care that in a tropical country humid toilets easily attract fungi and spores.
Asmara Pusparani, an executive who travels a lot, said Indonesia’s toilet habits needed to be adjusted. “Toilets at airports are smelly and wet. They often don’t have toilet paper, so some people squat on the seat,” she said.
But it’s not only toilets at transport hubs that need to be improved. Ennie Boediardjo Satoto, a psychologist and volunteer at ATI, said many schools, especially state schools, had toilet issues. She said many students waited until they get home because toilets at schools were dirty.
The “small room” is a source of many problems when dirty, she said. Causing bladder problems for youngsters is one of them.
Ministry of Transportation spokesman Bambang Ervan said there had been improvements to Indonesia’s public toilets.
Although not all train stations or bus terminals reach high standards of cleanliness, they have on average improved. The ministry, he said, has built numerous public toilets at train stations, especially along routes served by trains that do not have toilets.
Bambang said the ministry set standards for public toilets, but monitoring operators was beyond its capacity. “We need to focus on other issues, such as safety,” he said.
Bakri, an official at the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, said several agencies had made significant improvements recently. Since 2007, it has rated toilets at the nation’s airports. This year, the ministry even rated the cleanliness of toilets at zoos.
“A person’s cleanliness is evident from the state of his toilet. We have campaigned on this for years now,” he said.
He said the ministry was aware that cleanliness was a factor influencing the number of foreign visitors. “If they tell their friends back home how filthy our toilets are, none of them will come here,” he said. “So keeping our toilets clean is necessary.”
Making this a reality is not easy. “We can’t force other ministries to clean up their toilets. We can only offer them incentives to do it through competitions and awards,” he said.
Once every two years, the ministry ranks toilets at 20 airports. Surabaya’s Juanda airport has won the award twice in a row. It’s four-star rated toilets beat the three-star facilities at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta, Bali’s Ngurah Rai and Solo’s Adi Sumarmo.
Bakri said the ministry would also start to grade local airports, train stations and harbors. “Foreign tourist arrivals have increased. I feel clean toilets contribute to the growth,” he said.
The next move
Naning, who founded ATI 10 years ago and has been working voluntarily for the association ever since, agreed that people should acknowledge the improvements made by the government in public toilets.
“In 10 years, we have seen the government renovate toilets in airports. We also have toilet attendants, and toilets at gas stations are getting cleaner,” she said.
But more work needs to be done. Naning said in the next 10 years, architects should know how to design environmentally friendly toilets. She said architects should think about climate change and how it affects sanitation.
The longer periods women spend in toilets should also be considered, she said. Another pressing need is to educate cleaners to keep toilets clean and dry.
“We also need to ask if septic tanks are sealed and do not contaminate groundwater,” she said, adding that teaching better toilet etiquette was also need.
Also important would be spreading the message to students about good toilet practices. Naning said she hoped the Ministry of Education and Culture would show a greater interest. She said that other ministries also had a responsibility to increase public awareness of hygiene.
Ibrahim Bafadal, an official at the Ministry of Education and Culture, said the ministry established the School Health Unit (UKS) years ago. He said schools were now aware of the importance of hygiene and all schools now had clean toilets.
“The toilets are basic but clean,” he said. “It’s true there are some filthy toilets, but many have improved.”