Is this the answer to the Cape Town Airport unisex toilet debate?

2020-02-04 04:45 - Marisa Crous
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DA Western Cape leader Bonginkosi Madikizela recently sparked debate when he addressed the state of gender-specific bathrooms at Cape Town International Airport.

On Facebook, his status read: “I find it backwards, discriminating and stereotyping that just because you are a male, you must be searched by a male. If you are a female, you must (be) searched by a female at the airport, what about members of LGBTQI+? I’m gonna challenge this. We must also do away with male and female toilets, we must have unisex toilets.”  

As progressive as unisex bathrooms at the airport and in other public spaces may sound – for example, Virgin Active Kenilworth Centre has gender neutral change rooms/bathrooms already implemented - it doesn’t always work as well as it did on Ally McBeal. 

READ: Tired of dingy, smelly and overcrowded airport bathrooms? What OR Tambo is planning for you  

Speaking to Moyo Blouberg's general manager, Oliver Hart, he mentions the restaurant's unisex bathrooms (inherited by the group in 2014) haven't had the greatest response from customers. He says generally overseas customers find the idea of shared bathrooms fine, while South Africans are still very much uncomfortable with this arrangement.

"We actually encourage customers to use the public toilets in our complex instead," he says, as women and people with children tend to feel unsafe or uncomfortable using unisex toilets.

"Men tend to be fine with this arrangement."

He says as Moyo is a kiddies-friendly place, the staff tends to keep as close and eye as possible, to ensure the safety of everyone using the facilities. 

If we consider Madikizela’s idea, it is well-meaning, but it was received with a lot of backlash. For starters, I think it's fair to say that most women won’t feel comfortable if searched by a male security officer - no matter how you identify. Other concerns raised by the public and articles like Jeanie le Roux’s To pee or not to pee? That is the gender-neutral question, were focused squarely on this "irresponsible" and almost "idiotic" unisex bathroom suggestion, made in a country where gender-based violence is so rife. 

Biological differences dictate that the genders have different bathroom needs. We all 1, we all 2, but we simply cannot deny some other differences, like the fact that women can't just 'whip it out', or that women menstruate. Menstruation requires women to seek extra levels of bathroom privacy and comfort that men, simply, don’t require. Privacy takes time, i.e. queues at women’s bathrooms tend to be longer. Waaaaay longer. 

Last year, Airports Company South Africa, when asked about passenger satisfaction, said it is often the small things that make passengers happy and calm within the airport space. Queuing doesn't make anyone happy at the airport where time is always of the essence. 

The Guardian notes that on average, women wait 6 minutes to go to the loo, while men wait just 11 seconds. Think about how long you’ve waited in a queue at festivals, and your head will be shaking viciously at this almost-cruel injustice. While your queue is moving at a pace that is glacial at best, the boys skip past in droves to their modern peeing trees.

It's just a fact: Penises pee faster.   

READ: Why that duty-free perfume at the airport could lead to cheaper airline tickets 

How can we pee faster, while still ensuring the safety of women and children, plus non-binary individuals? The answer could very well be in bathroom design and layout.

The Guardian notes a 2017 study conducted in Ghent, which attempted to tackle waiting time in queues. Problem is, both men’s and women’s bathrooms are basically the same size, with a similar amount of facilities in both. Women take longer than men to use the same amount of facilities, that is women tend to take around 1.5 minutes in the stall vs a man’s 60 seconds or less. With the same amount of loos available to both these genders, women will always be stuck waiting. 

So, if we re-think the design and layout of traditionally gender-specific bathrooms in public spaces: changing ratios, introducing an increased number of loos in women’s bathrooms by reducing the space of men’s – we could see some relief in terms of women’s toilet queues. 

To address the dilemma non-binary individuals have in the public toilet space, we need to consider the option of adding a third gender-neutral bathroom, instead of going the unisex route. A third option would mimic the same specifics of a women's bathroom as proposed above, i.e. more toilets, that would reduce waiting time and would serve the rights of everyone to choose.

This would be in addition to the redesigned men's and women's toilets that would remain as is, serving the purpose of those who don't feel comfortable sharing spaces.

Watch the below for proposed redesigns of men's and women's bathrooms: 

Ultimately, space is an issue. And the question of disabled bathrooms or stalls come into play, as we must consider a layout in each bathroom space that cater to all needs.  

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