South African schools’ toilet facilities: A shame and a disgrace

Many girls find themselves in the predicament of having to miss school when they are menstruating. Poor facilities mean these girls are unable to change their sanitary towels in private. (Madalene Cronje/M&G)

Many girls find themselves in the predicament of having to miss school when they are menstruating. Poor facilities mean these girls are unable to change their sanitary towels in private. (Madalene Cronje/M&G)

COMMENT

Although 41% of schools surveyed by the Water Research Commission were found to employ cleaners, only 25% of the cleaners reported that they cleaned the toilets at least once a day.

An alarming 57% of the cleaners revealed that they used the same cloths to clean the kitchen as they did to clean the toilets. This means that germs and bacteria are spread on a daily basis.

These are just some of the startling revelations reported in a special report on rural school sanitation.

Earlier this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa instructed Minister of Education Angie Motshekga to conduct a full audit of school facilities with unsafe structures. This was after the fatal incident in which five-year-old Viwe Jali drowned in a pit toilet at her Eastern Cape school. Sadly, the incident was not the first.

After the death of five-year-old Michael Komape in 2014, the Water Research Commission investigated the issue of school sanitation, particularly in rural parts of the country. The president’s instruction for the audit is definitely a necessary one. Nonetheless, there are many other issues to school sanitation.

The research found conditions that no human being should be exposed to, conditions that infringed on basic human rights.

A total of 130 schools in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal were visited, where interviews were conducted with pupils, principals and cleaners. The toilets in the various schools were also inspected. Conditions differed, but what the research showed was how the dignity of pupils was being violated.

Many of the toilet cubicles did not have doors that locked, 9% of the pit latrines did not have pit covers and 18% of these were broken, allowing pests to infiltrate the space and spread contamination. Only 18% of the pupils consulted thought the toilets were sufficiently private.

One pupil expressed how the toilets had missing doors and another pointed out that they felt a loss of dignity. Of all the schools visited, only 35% had basins for handwashing; only 50% of these were functioning.

Pictures taken during the investigation showed how filthy some toilets were, which was also observed by the pupils questioned: 71% of them found the toilets smelly, 63% found them dirty and 41% of them expressed fear of being subjected to bullying in the toilets.

These appalling conditions were linked to failed management. In some schools, decent toilets were reserved for the teachers.

Interventions should not just be about building safe structures but about building facilities that offer dignity to our children. The humiliating conditions discovered after the tragic deaths of Michael Komape and Viwe Jali, exposing health and safety risks, are faced by children in the rural parts of a free and democratic South Africa on a daily basis.

The structures in some of these schools date back to the apartheid era when communities had to build their own schools out of mud. Years later, some of these mud schools still exist, even though an entire section of the Constitution is dedicated to children’s rights.

Many girls find themselves in the predicament of having to miss school when they are menstruating. Poor facilities mean these girls are unable to change their sanitary towels in private. In fact, many can’t even afford pricey sanitary products.

In recent years, nongovernmental organisations, privileged schools, businesses and individuals have taken it upon themselves to donate sanitary products to those in need, in an attempt to ease this situation.

Similarly, there has been a bid to seek out alternative toilet designs, which do not place users directly over deep pits.

The education department should also mandate school governing bodies to raise funds to employ more cleaning staff and purchase safety equipment and cleaning supplies.

The Water Research Commission is open and committed to working with stakeholders towards creating environmentally friendly and sustainable sanitation in schools.

Boitumelo Lekalakala works for the Water Research Commission. The views expressed in this article are her own 

Boitumelo Lekalakala

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