Public school toilets are the pits

The department of water and sanitation recently published the Draft National Water Sanitation Policy in an effort to promote further access to sanitation. But the draft policy leaves many gaps in respect of provision of adequate sanitation, particularly in our schools.

Too many learners’ rights to education and human dignity have been, and continue to be, violated as a result of no or substandard sanitation facilities. The provision of safe, adequate and reliable water sanitation in our schools is a necessity to ensure that children’s basic right to education and dignity is realised.

Human Rights Month serves a dual purpose; we are reminded of the sacrifices that accompanied the struggle for the attainment of democracy in South Africa but are also afforded the opportunity to reflect on progress made in the promotion and protection of our hard-earned human rights. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the final draft of the Constitution.

Although the past two decades of democracy can boast tremendous gains, for the average South African born into poverty, or in a township or rural area, their place and circumstances of birth still determines their path in life. Education should provide the means to transport children and their families out of poverty. The protection, promotion and realisation of constitutional rights should be at the heart and core of government business. But there is a long road ahead.

It cannot be denied that the state of basic education is dismal. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga herself decried the state of education in “former African schools”, highlighting the shortage of textbooks, inadequate school infrastructure, and the promotion of poor education department administrators as key issues. The minister described the basic education system as comprising “a Cinderella system deprived of resources and characterised by pockets of disasters … akin to a national crisis”.

Safe, adequate and reliable water sanitation is an intrinsic part of section 29 of the Constitution. Moreover, water sanitation affects the right to human dignity (section 10). Basic water sanitation is an essential part of the right to water and intimately connected to and affects the right to health and life. In the context of schools, each of these rights in turn has an effect on the rights of children, whose interests are of paramount importance in terms of section 28(2) of the Constitution.

Sanitation infrastructure at public schools vary substantially, and continue to reflect historical resource allocation and distribution patterns, with the worst conditions inordinately affecting black learners, particularly in rural and township schools.

By the department’s own statistics, released in 2014, we are confronted by a bleak picture of the state of sanitation in the majority of schools (National Education Infrastructure Management System Standard Report 2014).

It reveals that 49% of public schools either have no sanitation facilities or are forced to rely on pit latrines or a combination of pit latrines and other facilities. That is just short of half of all public schools.

Of the 23 740 public schools in the country 474 have no sanitation facilities, 4 681 are forced to make do with an unreliable water supply and 604 have no water.

The raw numbers are harrowing. The stories from the learners are unbearable. As part of a broad-based campaign, Equal Education undertook one of the largest social audits in the country – carried out over the course of two years – in an effort to provide a complete picture of the sanitation crisis in Gauteng schools.

More recently, Equal Education in the Western Cape conducted a social audit of 250 schools in the Western Cape, which included an extensive sanitation survey. The results give insight into the extensive problems faced by learners who have limited access to water and adequate sanitation.

Children report that, because of poor sanitation facilities (or their lack), they avoid going to the toilet, which leads to poor concentration in class and health problems. High learner-to-toilet ratios also result in diminished time for school work because they are forced to stand in long queues. Children are often forced to leave school to find more acceptable sanitation facilities, missing learning and becoming vulnerable to rape and assault.

Lack of toilet paper and soap leads to children contracting illnesses from the toilets, resulting in time away from school. Girls face the indignity of not having access to feminine hygiene products and disposal facilities, resulting in them missing school during their menstrual periods.

The issues are urgent. In early 2014, during the Gauteng Sanitation Campaign, a tragic incident took place in Chebeng village in Limpopo. Six-year-old Michael Komape died when he fell into a pit toilet. More recently, a caretaker in the Eastern Cape fell into an unsafe pit latrine. These cases highlight the extreme and fatal threat that poor sanitation infrastructure at schools poses to children and staff.

Despite the grim picture, South Africa still lacks an appropriate school sanitation framework. We have seen that, when faced with pressure from civil society, governments are inclined to exercise positive political will to execute and implement policies that speak to the needs of the people.

The campaign by Equal Education to ensure that all schools have basic infrastructure first culminated in the publication of the regulations relating to Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure in November 2013 (Infrastructure Norms).

The norms set the bare minimum infrastructure standards that all schools must comply with. This includes standards for an adequate water supply and appropriate sanitation. We have been vocal in our stance that the education department timeously complies with the school infrastructure requirements. In this regard, the norms require that schools that have no access to water supply and sanitation must be prioritised and receive these services by November 29. And by November??29 2020, all schools must have access to adequate water and sanitation.

The reality is that the infrastructure norms have not been complied with and are, on their own, simply not enough. It is imperative that the provision of sanitation envisioned in the norms are supported and complemented by further legislation and policies aimed at promoting access to sanitation. The department of water and sanitation’s Draft National Water Sanitation Policy is an effort to promote further access to sanitation. In comments on the draft policy, we note that it leaves many gaps in respect of provision of adequate sanitation in schools.

The draft policy admits that the “policy position remains weak related to public institutional [including school] sanitation”. This underscores the need for the draft policy to be improved. Strengthening the regulatory and policy framework is key to ensuring that learners are provided with adequate sanitation.

The numerous problems, and their far-reaching consequences, underscore the need for and importance of a comprehensive policy framework to tackle the appalling state of school infrastructure in thousands of schools.

No child should suffer the indignity of lacklustre and absent sanitation. The struggle for equal and quality education is a call to arms in what is a life-and-death fight for poor, black children.

Chandni Gopal is a legal adviser at the Equal Education Law Centre in Johannesburg and Zandile Ngubeni is the head of Equal Education Gauteng

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