Access to clean and safe toilets still a challenge for women in informal settlements

Communal toilets are shared by about five households each in informal settlements. All photos by Qhama Mroleli

A survey by Elitsha reveals that women in informal settlements in Khayelitsha use toilets that lack privacy, safety and are not clean.

Sanitation services in informal settlements in Khayelitsha remain one of the biggest challenges facing the community, especially women. The South African Constitution guarantees that everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected but most women who spoke to Elitsha on World Toilet Day, 19 November, revealed how the toilets lack privacy, safety and are not clean.

Nosimphiwe Bham, an 80-year-old woman, has lived in Ndlovini informal settlement for over 18 years. She has first-hand experience of the poor conditions of toilets. “I ended up building my own [pit] toilet because we have communal toilets which are not easy to access due to the fact that people tend to lock the toilets and not share the key with other community residents.” Bham stays about 200 metres from the communal toilets. Another resident Zandile Ncapayi, who was at the communal tap with Bham said that one can spend the whole day looking for the key to get access to a toilet. “At night we use the bucket to pee and then keep it overnight to throw it in the toilet the next day. You can’t go out to the toilets at night,” said the 30-year-old.

The Ndlovini informal settlement was established around 1998. Without a sanitation system, they built pit toilets. Sylvia Mpekwana said that she built her own long-drop when she moved to the area and that the communal toilets came afterwards. According to her, the pit toilets still have an advantage over the better, flushing communal toilets because these are further from home and it’s dangerous to walk out at night, especially for women.

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Pit toilet in Ndlovini informal settlement. Mpekwana says that she built her toilet when they moved to the area.

An 18-year-old, Yandisa Tyhilani who grew up in the TR section in Site B, also raised the issue of health as five to ten houses share one toilet in her neigbourhood. She added that at times the toilets are filthy and if one toilet gets blocked it affects the nearby toilets. Health experts say that exposure to harmful bacteria in unsanitary environments puts women at risk of urinary tract infections, toxic shock syndrome and vaginal infections.

We met Sinazo Gqalushe from Taiwan informal settlement in Site C. Outside her shack there were portable toilets known as pota-potas which were dropped by cleaners for the owners to pick up. “We have to close the windows because of the smell of the pota-potas and I have to stop children from playing with them the whole time,” said Gqalushe.

“They are better than the chemical toilets (Mshengus) because each household has their own pota-pota,” said the 28-year-old.

The pota-potas have been in the past used to show disdain for poor sanitation services offered to informal settlements.

Residents of Monwabisi informal settlement have a different story to tell. The area doesn’t have enough toilets. “We don’t have toilets here; if we want to relieve ourselves we go to the nearby bush,” said Xolisile Xintu.

The provision and maintenance of sanitation services remains largely the function of local government. There are lots of stories of poor South Africans who have died for lack of proper sanitation. Five-year-old Michael Komape drowned in a pit toilet at Mahlodumela Primary School, outside Polokwane, four years ago.

Chemical toilets (Mshengus) in Harare, Khayelitsha.

It seems like there is still a long way to go for residents of informal settlements in South Africa to have decent and clean sanitation.

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