This is why toilets are a gender issue

Until recently I lived on a street with a gravel road. When it rained, the city dispatched workers to fill holes the rain made.

Not two kilometres away is a township with a sprawling informal settlement where the majority of residents have no access to basic sanitation. No decent toilets, no clean water. When it rains, the sewage creates streams of human waste between shacks that run into the road, then into a river and the sea.

As far as some people in local government and some middle-class residents are concerned, people who live in the informal settlement don’t belong here. They take the position that resolving the sanitation and housing crisis would only encourage “them” to stay and for the settlement to grow.

I have had particular interest in the politics of toilets for decades. I’m delighted that, in recent years others, too, have become interested in toilets. Some of my friends call this province iKaka.

When the first democratically elected government entered Parliament, a significant problem arose. Parliament did not have enough toilets for the female MPs the ANC’s gender quota ensured. Too many women. Not enough toilets.

For middle-class women, toilets become a problem when we have to stand in queues at shopping malls and other venues.

But, in the main, toilets are a political issue specific to poor people, and more so to poor women.

It would be fair to assume we middle-class people have access to at least one, or several, flushing toilets in our homes. It would also be fair to assume we have water on tap in our homes, even if we didn’t grow up with these luxuries we now consider basic.

Let’s imagine a different reality. Imagine a woman in your life. A woman you love: your daughter, your mother, the woman who raised you, your sister, your partner, yourself.

Hold that picture of this special, loved woman in your mind. See her.

Now imagine that this woman you love lives in a shack in an informal settlement. It is raining. The shack is leaking. She has no inside toilet. It is dark, night.

She needs to use the loo. She steps out of her shack and walks through the open sewers to the nearest public toilet. On the way she has to pass a tavern where men have been drinking for hours. Some of them know it is a good vantage point for spotting women going to the toilet alone in the dark. There is no street lighting. She has to walk some distance to find a toilet. The toilets are filthy and overflowing, or have no doors.

The woman is seen walking alone in the dark to the toilet. A group of drunk men start following her, knowing her screams will be muffled by the sound of the rain. They can take turns keeping guard against anybody catching them.

I don’t need to tell you what happens next.

Toilets are a gender issue. Service delivery and provision of basic services is a gender issue. Sanitation is a health, safety and security issue. They are human rights issues.

Sanitation is a marker of poverty and inequality that divides those of us who have and those who don’t.

But back to this woman we love. She knows her rights. After being raped and battered, she drags herself to the nearest police station, to report the rape. She is wet, bleeding, afraid, and shaking with shock and cold. She tries to report what happened. The police laugh at her, telling her there is nothing to report. She should go home: it is late and it is cold. There is no statement to be made. The one female officer on duty remains quiet and disappears.

But the woman we love insists on filing a report. The officers on duty ask her what she was doing alone outside at night. She was asking for trouble. She should have known better than to go out at night by herself. They tell her she deserves what happened to her because she was behaving irresponsibly. Her crime? Trying to go to the toilet.

At no point do the police observe any of the established protocols for reporting sexual violence. There is no victim support. No female police officer to interview her privately. No rape kit administered. No evidence. No basis on which to investigate.

In their treatment of her, the police show no understanding of the law or her basic human rights. In how they treat her, it is like she is raped again.

What this story illustrates is that, despite gender equality enshrined in our Constitution, poor South African women are far from free or equal to their middle-class sisters or brothers.

For as long as women and girls cannot walk around neighbourhoods alone at night, we are not free. As long as we are blamed for being raped because of what we wear, or where we were, because of drinking alcohol, or flirting, because we are women – we are not free.

The questions asked of this woman we love – by the police – are not questions we ask of free people. Our police and public health services – the institutions mandated to care for us and keep us safe – are the known key points where women who have suffered abuse are abused again.

This kind of abuse is so common it has a name: secondary abuse. The fear of further victimisation – among other reasons, including issues of honour and shame – is the reason most women who suffer (sexual) violence do not report it.

And for those women brave enough to report violations, to insist on their rights, once the case enters the criminal justice system, it is likely that her sexual history or the extent of her physical injuries, will be determining factors of whether a rapist will be convicted and, in the unlikely event that the rapist is sentenced, for how long.

Even for those who are jailed, they are likely to be paroled early into their sentencing. Rapists operate with impunity because they know it is unlikely that they will be reported by the victim/survivor and, even if reported, the likelihood of evidence being collected correctly is low, making conviction unlikely.

They see how men who have raped or killed women get sentenced and they know not to worry about the implications of rape. They are safe.

Now picture a little girl you love, playing with her friends in a village surrounded by the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape or KwaZulu-Natal. She is safe and happy. Free.

But she does not come home when it is time to do so. She is missing.

Here ukhutwala – the practice of abducting young girls and forcing them into marriage – is alive and well. Our little girl, the one we love, has been abducted by an adult man with the assistance of other men.

Cases of ukhutwala are rarely reported to the police either because of limited access to police and criminal justice services in remote areas, or because these abductions are considered a private matter to be resolved between families. These cases are often presided over by traditional leaders who bring the male members of the families concerned together, to adjudicate the situation. An often-quoted phrase I’ve heard from traditional leaders to their subjects: the Constitution is for out there; here, I am in charge.

Most commonly, a fine is imposed on the male culprit. The fine takes the form of a goat or a sheep. The trauma suffered by the girl takes on an economic dimension. At no point is her trauma considered. And at no point is her voice heard.

It is beside the point. Of course, these cases of adult men raping minor girls, being unreported, do not make their way into crime statistics.

What does this tell us? In the course of my work I have come to see that many women and girls are not aware of their rights. Many women do not know that legally they are equal to men. I’m not talking only of rural women.

I am speaking of women who live in Alexandra, in KwaMashu, in Tshwane, in Cape Town. In the course of my work some of the most fundamental and empowering changes I have seen are women discovering they have rights; that they have the right to say no.

Although numbers are an indicator of change, we must move beyond them if we are serious about equality.

Increased numbers of women in Parliament and in government do not necessarily lead to pro-women policies and practices. For the most part, poor, black African women in free South Africa remain second-class citizens. The quality of education they have access to still resembles, far too closely and disturbingly, Bantu education.

The systems meant to protect women fail us at every turn. Public service delivery and state accountability is weak, particularly for poor women.

What can we do? Investing heavily in infrastructure development that addresses inequality is good for women and girls. It also creates jobs.

Addressing the alarmingly poor quality of education by meaningfully improving the quality, and increasing retention and completion rates of girls in schools, is good for society. Educated women are at reduced risk of contracting HIV and Aids. Educated women are less likely to be poor.

Having easy access to clean water and decent sanitation – not the public toilets that are shared by 30 to 50 people and are never cleaned – that you and I are willing to use, would be an investment in gender equality: it will reduce women’s vulnerability and increase their safety and health.

At present, poor black African women may have the right to vote, access to public health care and some schooling, but they are also likely to be unemployed and have limited skills even when they have finished school, because of the poor quality of schooling. They are at higher risk than others of being victims of crime, of being raped, of being HIV positive. The system is not working for them.

Poor uneducated women are neither safe nor free. The rights enshrined in our Constitution have not translated into a better life for the poorest women.

For many, the long walk to freedom remains a long and hazardous walk to the toilet.

Sarita Ranchod is director of Under the Rainbow – Creative Strategies for Positive Change, a specialist social change group

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