Africa Must Listen To Women To Address The Sanitation Crisis

Sanitation Crisis
Image: Africa Centre

The perceived role of women in our societies has evolved markedly over the last few decades. Women are more empowered, filling more diverse roles in society and employing their talents more fully. No longer is it a woman’s place to be stuck at home, as it was decades ago.

But we are still a long way from defeating the hard circumstances that stand in the way of truly transformative change. One of these is absent, inadequate or poorly planned public toilets.

Women and girls in many African cities, if lucky enough to find a toilet, may find a broken lock on the door or have to go down a dark alley that feels unsafe. The most essential requirements — safety, privacy and hygiene — are too often ignored in the planning, design and maintenance of community and public toilets, leaving women unable to use the toilet where and when they need to, 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 high quality community and public toilets, women may choose to stay at home, rather than risk being caught short while engaging in social or economic life.

So what needs to change to make toilets more suitable for women? A new guide from WaterAid, Unicef and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor urges city authorities to involve women in the planning and design of public toilets blocks, and highlights the requirements for female-friendly toilets.

The guide identifies six main requirements: 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, this is all so straightforward 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 would help.

It is also obvious to me that toilets need to enable women to manage their periods, by providing water and soap for washing the body as well as reusable sanitary pads, and a place to dispose of sanitary products. A hook for hanging up clothes or belongings is also important.

Women are still more likely to be helping children or older people to use the toilet, so cubicles need to be spacious enough to carry out these care responsibilities.

These guidelines might seem self-evident to all women. They aren’t as obvious to most men. Yet the design, planning and management of public toilets in many countries continues to be a male-dominated field of work. Consultations for the creation of public toilets must include women and girls. They know best what type of toilets are needed to help them to go about their daily lives with dignity.

The risks when they are not consulted are high.

In South Africa alone, some 40,000 rapes are reported every year – though the actual number might be much higher. The risk of women falling victim to this crime increases if there is no safe place for them to go to the toilet, bath or manage their periods.

An example of change is the community toilet model in Durban. It uses repurposed shipping containers and is paid for from South Africa’s national budget allocation for household sanitation. The money is used to pay the part-time cleaners and attendants for the toilets that serve more than 1 million people, and so communities can use the toilets for free.

While the guide is aimed at improving public and community toilets, its principles are more widely applicable, for example in schools. In Uganda, WaterAid worked to construct latrines in the town of Namalu. The town is prone to flash flooding and water logging, making the safe construction of latrines difficult. It has a population of approximately 3100, including about 1150 schoolchildren. WaterAid and its partners, constructed latrines at a school that included a wash-area for girls to manage their menstruation more efficiently.

Hope is visible 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 a crucial emphasis on ensuring addressing the needs of women and girls that will allow them to enjoy their right to sanitation.

Chilufya Chileshe, Regional Advocacy Manager for Southern Africa at WaterAid