Despite the evolved role of women in society, there are still obstacles that need to be overcome on the path to true transformation. One of these is the public toilet, which is either absent, inadequate or poorly planned.
Women and girls in many African cities, if lucky enough to find a toilet, may have to go down a dark alley only to find a broken lock on the door.
The most essential requirements — safety, privacy and hygiene — are too often ignored in the planning, design and maintenance of public toilets, leaving women vulnerable and perpetuating inequality at the most basic level.
This is an urgent problem and it is growing: the World Bank predicts that 50% of Africans will live in urban areas by 2030. Without access to improved public toilets, women may choose to stay at home rather than risk being caught short while participating in social or economic life.
A new guide from WaterAid, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor urges city authorities to involve women in planning and design and highlights the requirements for female-friendly toilets.
The guide identifies the main requirements as: safety and privacy, allowing for menstrual hygiene management, accessibility, affordability and availability, good maintenance and management, and meeting the requirements of caregivers.
As a woman, all this is obvious to me. Of course public toilets need to be safe and private. Having a lock on the door and adequate lighting inside as well as outside the toilet block are important.
Toilet facilities need to include water and soap for washing the body and reusable pads, and a place to dispose of sanitary products. A hook for hanging up clothes, bags or belongings is also necessary.
Women often help children and older people to use the toilet facilities, so cubicles need to be spacious enough for them to carry out these responsibilities.
These guidelines will be self-evident to women. They are not as obvious to most men. The risks when women and girls are not consulted are high.
In South Africa alone, some 40 000 rapes are reported every year — though the actual number might be higher. The risk of women falling victim to this crime increases if there is no safe restroom.
A community toilet model in Durban is an example of change. It uses repurposed shipping containers and is paid for from South Africa’s budget allocation for household sanitation. The money is used to pay part-time cleaners and attendants for the toilets that serve more than one million people.
Hope is to be found across the continent when it comes to sanitation: from South Africa pledging to eliminate unsafe latrines in public schools to Nigeria declaring a state of emergency on sanitation. The presidents of Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa have publicly announced their commitment to sanitation.
These words now need to be turned into action, with crucial emphasis on addressing the needs of women and girls that will allow them to enjoy their right to sanitation.
Chilufya Chileshe is the regional advocacy manager for Southern Africa at WaterAid