When Manish Kelshikar was traveling with women colleagues in India, he noticed that they could rarely find a clean bathroom to use when on the road. For the men, it was mostly a nuisance. It was only when his own teen daughter told him how she could not even change a sanitary pad while traveling around the city, and that she wanted to live abroad and never come back to India, that he felt compelled to help address the issue.
In 2019, Kelshikar founded Woloo, a portmanteau of women’s loo. Woloo is a mobile app that aims to create “hygiene dignity” by helping women locate and access clean and hygienic washrooms and toilets at restaurants and cafes across Mumbai. The app has about 1,200 certified washrooms in Mumbai and 30,000 users in the city, with the average user using their facilities three to four times monthly.
Latika Sakhuja, a Woloo user who works in education, says the app has transformed her ability to use public urban spaces. “I find a clean loo wherever I am,” she says. “Now shopping trips can be as long as I want them to be. I don’t have to rush home to use the toilet.”
Nearly all Indian women have had the experience of holding onto a full bladder or avoiding drinking water as they run errands or commute to work, simply because they can’t find a clean toilet. While Indian men have access to more facilities — or simply use sidewalks or go behind buildings — Indian women can seldom find clean, hygienic toilets while on the go.
In Mumbai, a city where about 4 million women use transit, there are no free toilets for women to use in public spaces. In 2019, a report published by the Praja Foundation found a “shocking” 66% disparity between pay-to-use toilets available for men versus women in Mumbai. With just 3,237 toilets for women recorded in total, women in Mumbai have access to about one third of the number of toilets and urinals men could use.
For a decade now, campaigners with the Right To Pee movement have fought for access to more, cleaner and safer toilets for women. NGOs have even taken the issue to the courts, leading to Bombay’s High Court declaring in 2016 that women hold a fundamental right to clean toilets.
But in the absence of substantive municipal efforts to enforce such rights, women have turned to apps like Woohoo for the promise of safety and hygiene as they navigate public spaces in Mumbai, Delhi and other Indian cities. From an app guiding women through safer travel routes at night using crowdsourced data to another allowing women to flag hotspots for harassment, Indian women say their phones have become integral to helping them make safer decisions about their mobility and participate in urban life.
“Many women are emotional about the facility…and expressed their relief and happiness,” Kelshikar says of Woloo’s users, which include workers and students. “We also have some interesting feedback that women are also discovering restaurants and cafes through Woloo that they have never been to in the past. Many women also check out the hygiene score of the restaurant’s toilet before choosing to dine there.”
Through partnerships with 10,000 restaurants and cafes across 50 cities, the app maps out clean toilets within two kilometers of a user’s location. Crucially, these partnerships also allow women to use facilities which would otherwise only be accessible to patrons.
Woloo identifies clean toilets in restaurants by evaluating location, upkeep, hygiene, stink and other parameters through discrete visits from “hygiene officers.” These washrooms are certified in association with the Toilet Board Coalition, a global non-profit enterprise working under the World Bank to improve sanitation standards across more than 40 countries
In Ghatkopar in Mumbai, the company has also piloted a new powder room concept featuring smart toilets, a café, and intimate products for women on sale. It’s “a place where they can revive and relax and continue their work through the city,” Kelshikar says.
To be sure, such app-based safety solutions have serious limitations. When Debarati Bhattacharya, a sociologist based in Ahmedabad who has researched women’s use of safety apps in the country, did a baseline survey to understand the awareness about the safety apps among the youth groups of Rajasthan, she found that many women’s knowledge of these technological resources was limited to Google Maps.
“In India, most public spaces are not accessible to women of all socio-economic classes and governed by patriarchy,” she says. “All these apps or tech that help women are only means of access and not the end. They are also used by very few women.”
Rather than such technological bandages, Indian women would benefit from policymakers and urban developers “gendered understanding of spatial planning, policy changes and gender sensitization,” Bhattacharya says.
“It’s not only physical infrastructure but socio-economic factors at play that restrict women’s access to public spaces in India,” she says. “Planning has to be done from a gendered lens.”
India is considered one of the world’s most unsafe countries for women: In 2018, one rape was reported every 15 minutes. Despite the limitations of technology, many women are creating their own apps to help curb this sexual violence.
The deadly 2012 gang rape of a young woman on a New Delhi bus drove Supreet Singh of charity Red Dot Foundation to launch the SafeCity app. The crowdsourced app allows women in Indian cities to anonymously report sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces, showing hotspots of poor street lighting, indecent exposure and other categories. “I was going to a tea stall to drink tea and two boys started singing a vulgar song to me and commenting on my sexuality,” one user from Bhopal reported.
In 2013, Kalpana Viswanath started Safetipin, another crowdsourced phone app. It rates neighborhoods’ safety based on nine parameters, including lighting, people density, openness and security. Safetipin has had 180,000 downloads, and an average of 100 new registrations per week.
Unlike many women’s safety apps in the country, it goes beyond a system to alert authorities and loved ones that the user is in danger.
“We don’t believe in panic buttons, but it’s a user-facing app that enables women to make a safe choice while moving around the city,” Viswanath says. She notes that many women have found the safety scores to be particularly useful while renting a house or paying guest accommodation in a new neighborhood.
Antara Das, a 24-year-old marketing professional, uses the app in Delhi. She says that often it helps her find a safer, more well-lit route to use while out at night, as she uses public transport and lives far away from the city center. “Often the app made me realize that the quickest route may not be the safest route,” she says.
An additional app called Safetipin Nite, an app that is used to collect nighttime photos from a moving vehicle to evaluate a neighborhood’s safety once the sun goes down. And a web app called Safetipin Site crowdsources information on public places and public services, from public toilets to last mile connectivity, through a detailed questionnaire and spatial data.
Based on the data they collect, they work closely with local municipalities and governments to improve urban planning so that cities can be safer for women. Based on the data collected they have provided public space improvement reports to the New Delhi Municipal Council and several other government agencies in Delhi, Kolkata and cities in Haryana. Safetipin’s data analysis led the Delhi government to fix existing street lights, add new lighting and increase police patrolling in low-income areas near metro stations.
“Tech is an enabler and is useful in collecting data so that women can safely navigate through a city,” Viswanath says.
Kalpana Sunder is an independent journalist based in Chennai, India. She writes about travel, culture, architecture, art, development and gender.