Opinionista Nikki Stein 22 November 2013

World Toilet Day: #WeCantWait

If you knew about World Toilet Day, you probably made a fleeting comment about it to the person sitting next to you and then moved on with your busy schedule. You may not have given a second thought to “popping off to the loo” between meetings, taking for granted the toilet that flushes, the door that closes, the seemingly endless supply of toilet paper and soap. You probably washed your hands using the tap that never ceases to produce clean fresh water, before you took a deep breath and moved on.

For many of us, particularly at this time of year while we wrap up our work ahead of the holidays, “popping off to the loo” is certainly not the most stressful part of our days.

For millions of school children, however, the trauma associated with the denial of their basic right to sanitation leaves a lasting impact. Learners at thousands of schools across South Africa do not “pop off to the loo”. They are forced daily to face the indignity of being denied this right.

As part of SECTION27’s work on the right to basic education in Limpopo, we have been engaging the national Department of Basic Education and the Limpopo Department of Education on the provision of sanitation facilities to schools in Limpopo. Our work in this area began when our attention was drawn, approximately two years ago, to the horrific state of sanitation in Limpopo schools:

  • It has been estimated that approximately 80% of the schools in Limpopo use basic pit toilets.

  • The structures of these toilets are dilapidated. In some cases, the structures have collapsed completely, leaving exposed pits of waste on the school grounds. In many other cases, school toilets are under threat of imminent collapse.

  • The pits in many of these toilets are full, some of them to the point that learners cannot enter the cubicles to use the toilets. Apart from the fact that toilets with full pits can no longer be used, they attract maggots, snakes and other animals, and pose a threat to the health and safety of learners.

  • Most school toilets do not have basic necessities such as toilet paper, toilet seats and soap. In addition, many toilets do not have doors and therefore the learners using them are afforded no privacy.

  • Thousands of schools do not have reliable water supply for hand washing and drinking.

The impact of this on the rights to basic education, health, dignity, equality and privacy has long-lasting effects. Studies show that poor sanitation leads to increased learner absenteeism, particularly among teenage girls who are forced to stay home from school during their periods. During SECTION27’s research on sanitation in schools, learners of all ages have told us that they would rather drop out of school than face going to the toilet there. Facilities in this state contribute to the spread of disease. They also have a negative impact on the ability to manage conditions such as HIV.

Daily, teachers and learners are relieving themselves in the bushes. They have no other option.

As a result of SECTION27’s engagement with the Department of Basic Education and the Limpopo Department of Education – including threats of litigation – the Department of Basic Education developed a plan to provide new toilets and hand-washing facilities to 415 priority schools in Limpopo by the end of January 2014.

For the most part, construction of new sanitation facilities at the schools included on the plan is going well. However, SECTION27 is contacted on a regular basis by schools that do not have adequate sanitation facilities, but have not been included on this sanitation plan and whose requests to the provincial education department for assistance have gone unanswered. In our attempts to work out why these schools have not been included on the sanitation plan, we have written to the national and provincial education departments on numerous occasions requesting a list of the criteria used in identifying the priority schools.

While the Department of Basic Education has yet to respond to these requests, the closest thing to a direct response came in meeting held in September 2013 with the administrator from the national Department of Basic Education, and the leadership in the provincial education department.

The administrator suggested that there is in fact no rational basis upon which priority schools are identified. He asked us if we are aware of the “deep tribal divisions” in Limpopo, and suggested that the people who determine infrastructure lists are influenced by differences between ethnic groups.

The implication of this is an allegation that our children’s constitutional guarantees are swept aside in favour of a bias towards particular groups. That the constitutional entitlement to the basic human right of sanitation is dependent on the family you are born into, the language that you speak, and the cultures and traditions you adhere to. Sound familiar? It is exactly this thinking that characterized many of our apartheid policies, and it is exactly this thinking that our Constitution – which expressly guarantees the equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms – seeks to overcome.

Rather than establish the truth of this very serious allegation, however, and take urgent steps to address it, the administrator appeared satisfied that this was an adequate response to our request, and moved on to the next item on the agenda.

It is easy to move onto the next agenda item from a comfortable office with an en-suite flushing toilet. But until steps are taken to give meaning to the right to sanitation for all, we are denying our children their health, their education, and the very essence of what it is to be human. Urgent steps to address this are required by the right to basic education and the concomitant obligation on the State to do everything possible immediately to ensure that the right is realized in full for all learners across South Africa.

All eyes are on the Minister of Basic Education, as she finalizes her national uniform minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure on 30 November 2013. The draft released in September 2013 gives provincial education departments a period of ten years to ensure, among other things, that school sanitation facilities meet basic standards of adequacy.

This ten-year period is in direct conflict with the obligation on the State to do everything possible to realize each component of the right to education in full and immediately. It means that an entire generation of children will pass through the education system without this key component of the right. They will be exposed to health risks. They will be denied their privacy, their dignity and their equality.

In other words: #WeCantWait.


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