A middle-aged woman stands along the corridor between the ladies’ and men’s washrooms on the first floor at Garden City Mall in Nairobi. On the surface, she looks like someone who is torn between using either the “ladies” or the “gents”.
Few seconds later, a boy of about five years staggers from the men’s washrooms. Zipping up his trousers and inspecting his hands, the lady asks him if he has washed his hands.
Stammering, the obviously mortified boy tells her that the sink was too high for him. The seemingly impatient woman drags the boy toward the ladies’ washrooms in spite of his resistance.
While this might strike one as a normal procedure, lack of washrooms designed specifically for children is a ordeal that parents and guardians routinely go through in malls and other public places in Kenya.
A spot check by Saturday Nation in Nairobi’s leading restaurants, malls including the The Hub, Prestige Plaza, Junction Mall, Thika Road Mall (TRM) and Garden City and other popular public amenities paints an unflattering picture — most of these facilities do not have restrooms for children.
A significant number of these do not provide potties while their toilet and urinal bowls are either too high or too wide for children’s use.
Those that have family washrooms fall short of providing maximum safety for them, with most lacking anti-skid surfaces, which exposes small children to fatal falls.
Java restaurant along Kimathi Street provides a surface for mothers to change their babies’ diapers in the ladies’ washroom. The men’s restroom, however, does not have a similar feature, should a nursing dad wish to change attend to his baby.
The rest of city restaurants and hotels have neither changing rooms for babies nor facilities that help young children to use the bathroom with ease.
The men’s urinal at TRM for instance, has urinal bowls for young boys. These feature steps on which young boys stand as they pass urine. But even so, these boys have to share the facility with older men.
At the nearby Garden City Mall, only men, women and people living with disabilities have designated restrooms. Children use the facility chosen by the accompanying parent, often to the child’s discomfort.
Unlike in Kenya, many states in the US have laws that require public facilities with more than six toilets to have at least one family restroom.
In many countries in the world, public facilities insist that children older than seven years must use gender-appropriate restrooms.
While a seven-year-old boy or girl may use a toilet unassisted, parents often fear for their children’s safety in the washrooms, owing to cases of defilement and even kidnapping.
Mercy Njeru, a human resource expert and a mother of two boys and one girl aged nine, six and two respectively, believes that separate washrooms for children in malls, restaurants, worship facilities and other public places is not an option but a necessity.
“My greatest fear as a mother is defilement and possible abduction of my children. We live in a country where scary stories of child molestation are rising by the day,” Njeru says. According to her, use of public washrooms, for instance, is a dreadful experience.
“As a parent, you are never sure of the levels of hygiene in the washroom, and as a mother, you cannot enter the “gents” to supervise your son. While waiting outside, you are also not sure if he is following the dos and don’ts of proper toilet use such as sanitising the toilet seat that you have discussed with him. This exposes your child to all manner of germs,” Njeru laments.
Njeru wonders why, for instance, the children’s changing room is the same for both boys and girls at most swimming pools.
“Sometimes I allow my boys to use the men’s changing room even as this makes me uncomfortable. I am always worried about who else might be in the facility and what their motives might be. Yet, as a woman, I cannot just storm the men’s facility to check before my sons go in. It gets very hairy when they take longer than expected,” she says.
She adds: “It’s embarrassing to stand out of the men’s facility and call out their names as they change or relieve themselves. But their safety comes first. I haven’t had a scare, but I am always uneasy whenever they are using washrooms with adults.”
Njeru says supervising her two-year-old daughter with the toilet is easier, as she goes with her to the “ladies”.
Susan Mbabazi, an office assistant in the city, has two nieces and a nephew, all aged below 10 years. On most weekends, she takes them out to play, to eat out and to have fun at the mall.
“My nephew is six years. Whenever I am out with them, the boy must strictly use the ladies’ bathroom. It is safer for him and even myself,” she says.
Susan adds that she cannot risk taking the boy to the men’s washroom “to sooth his ego”. She, however, notes that even ladies’ washrooms are not the best for minors either.
“There are careless women who will be walking naked in the bathroom without a care in the world. Others change their bras in front of the mirror in the glare of everyone in the room. Some iron their panties in the open. As an aunt, these are not spectacles you want a minor to see,” she regrets, adding that malls with gym facilities are notorious for such abandoned behaviour.
The worries of Pauline Wanjira, a mother of two sons aged six and one from Kasarani in Nairobi, are not any different. For Pauline, visiting the malls and other high-traffic public places is a nightmare, especially when they have to use the washroom or change diapers.
“I have had several awkward moments in malls when taking my children out. My son thinks he is old enough to mind himself. Whenever we are at the mall, he insists on using the ‘gents’ but I can’t allow him to use the men’s washrooms if his dad is not with us,” Pauline says, adding: “People are so evil these days and I can’t risk letting him off my sight for even a moment.”
“One time, I was forced to go back home to change my baby’s diapers because the mall did not have a facility for that. It was so frustrating,” she narrates.
“My elder son refuses to use the women’s bathroom. I am always able to make him use it, usually after an argument. But this leaves him embarrassed,” Pauline explains.
As a safety measure, Pauline ensures that her son has used the toilet before leaving home to avoid problems at the mall.
“I am now used to changing my baby’s diapers and suckling him in the car. But malls can do better to help mothers with young children,” she says.
Kindergarten teacher and mother of a teenage boy Nelly Osako says that even schools for small children should promote washrooms for the different sexes, noting that children need to understand the differences in their anatomy from early on.