Eliminating public urination would undoubtedly improve the flow of traffic through Ethiopia’s urban centres. Driving through the streets of Addis Ababa can be treacherous enough, and obstacles abound. Poor pedestrian infrastructure means that there are many areas of the city without sidewalks, and people are often forced to walk on the road. Dogs are running around. Donkeys get in the way. Herds of sheep have to be moved from one side of the road to the other. There are so many things to avoid on the roads here. How can the flow of traffic be improved? Building sidewalks throughout an entire city would be expensive. The livestock are not going anywhere. One inexpensive way to reduce traffic congestion is to ban public urination. The men who decide that the middle of a roundabout is a good place to take a piss are slowing cars down. Two lane roundabouts become one lane. Lane changes in the middle of roundabouts to avoid public pissers cause delays. Putting an end to this pissing practice will speed up any commuter’s journey home. But there must be other reasons to put a stop to public urination. Women are not usually the ones partaking. Could the Ethiopian male’s fondness for peeing on the street be connected to gender inequality?
Ethiopia ranks low on the United Nations Gender Inequality Index. It is 174th out of 187 ranked countries. There are all sorts of reasons why women in this country have a difficult time. Reasons cited by the UN Gender Inequality Index include poor education, poor access to health professionals during pregnancy, and low participation in the labour market. There is no doubt that all of these factors contribute to the hardship endured by Ethiopia’s women, and they must be addressed. Policymakers have been trying to improve Ethiopia’s gender inequality for decades. The Canadian International Development Agency treats gender as a cross-cutting theme that runs through all of its development projects. Yet in the Gender Inequality Index Ethiopia ranks two places below Afghanistan…not exactly a country noted for progressive gender policies. Despite the failure of policymakers’ best minds over the years to improve the lot of women in Ethiopia, I will throw my hat into the ring with a policy proposal designed to promote gender equality in Ethiopia. It will be a nation-wide social engineering project, with ramifications for Ethiopians living in all corners of the country. The policy will force a societal change of behavior. In addition to improving Ethiopia’s gender equality ranking, it will improve the flow of traffic in large urban centres, and improve hygiene in the country. All of this can be accomplished with a policy that is a mere three words long: Banning public urination.
Plenty of cultural behaviors around the world have changed over time to reflect shifting societal norms. Feet are no longer bound in China. Women in Canada do not think twice about getting a job outside of the home. Drinking and driving is now taboo in most of the western world. Men who whip out their willies on crowded streets and start peeing against walls or in bushes as people walk past are doing more than simply relieving themselves. They are communicating their gender’s dominance: I am a man, so I can do this. Women do not urinate in public. Women are expected to dress conservatively and keep a low profile. They receive lewd comments if their heads are uncovered or their knees are exposed, never mind them hiking up their skirts to take a leak at the side of the road. Banning public urination will force men to stop and think: Why is it ok for men to pee in public but not women? Where do the women pee? Maybe I should find out and pee somewhere similar.
I must admit that peeing outdoors under the stars while camping is relaxing. But what stops me from pulling over on the side of a crowded street, or in the middle of a roundabout for a piss is not simply shyness, but more civility and consideration. I think that it would make people uncomfortable if I started urinating against the side of a building on a busy street in Toronto. And I think that it would make the women in Toronto feel more uncomfortable than the men there. I think a national campaign to get men to stop peeing in the streets is a good starting point for raising Ethiopia’s ranking on the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index, particularly if it is accompanied by a public awareness campaign to educate people that the ban is taking place as part of an effort to treat women with more respect.
Getting people in Canada to stop driving after drinking alcohol involved banning the practice through legislation, but the ban was accompanied by an education campaign meant to educate the public about why the practice was deemed unacceptable. TV ads and billboards taught the public about why drinking and driving was dangerous. A similar public awareness campaign would have to go with the ban on public urination. Women don’t pee in public, so why should men? It is not the catchiest slogan, but I’m sure that as the campaign evolves, more memorable slogans can be written. Ads to convince men to stop peeing in public could branch out into messages reminding men to treat women with respect. They could get men to stop and think about how their behavior affects women. ‘Shocking’ posters portraying women urinating on the streets could make men realize what it looks like when they do it. Another option is to use national role models to deliver the message. Long distance running is a popular sport in Ethiopia, and with the Olympics beginning next week, the sport will be brought into the spotlight. A TV commercial with a prominent Ethiopian runner taking a break from a race to pee next to the track could have an impact on the urination practice: ‘We are in a race against time to improve the lives of women in our country. Don’t lose the race by pissing on the side of the road,’ could go the narrative over the TV ad.
A ban on public urination with a public information campaign would have the added effect of improving hygiene in Ethiopian cities. The smell of sewage would decrease. The prevalence of pests would be lowered. Stains on city walls could be cleaned up. All of this could lead to a stronger civil society. Citizens must consider what kind of city they want to live in. Surely the practice of public urination has its roots in rural living. Peeing outside while living on a small-scale farm does not have much impact on neighbours, but living in a city requires different practices. Parisians still have a penchant for public pissing, and the city’s mayor tried to curb the practice by building sloping walls in Paris parks that sprayed piss back onto the culprits. Expensive projects like this may not work in Ethiopia, but cutting down on the public urination would make for a cleaner environment. “Give us toilets and we will use them!” will say people (men) upset by the ban on public urination. They have a point, and providing public latrines should be a long term goal for city governments in Ethiopia. But these naysayers should start by simply ask a woman where she pees. It is not enough to simply say that the reason one pisses in public is because of a lack of public toilet facilities if 50% of the public is finding somewhere else to pee.
Sun Yat Sen believed that competent governance of bodily functions is a prerequisite for competent governance. China has made great strides over the past few decades to convince citizens to stop peeing, hacking up phlegm, and spitting in public. On my last visit to China in 2003, people in restaurants there were still spitting on restaurant floors and butting out cigarettes in uneaten food on the table. But the government there has reportedly stepped up efforts to encourage people to wait in lines and stop spitting in public. If people are going to live in cities, it is important to have respect for one’s fellow citizens. China is responsible for many Ethiopian infrastructure projects. It needs to share its social engineering tactics, as well: Stop pissing on the street because you gross out and intimidate women. Stop and think about why it is ok for men to piss on the street but not women.
So there you have it: a simple policy that I predict will have a positive impact on Ethiopia’s ranking in the Gender Inequality Index, AND improve the flow of traffic. I’ll just wait for CIDA to call for project proposals on how to simultaneously raise the status of women and improve traffic flow.