For many pupils it's just the pits

2018-09-23 11:59
toilet scandal Mahlodumela Primary School in Limpopo where Michael Komape fell into a pit latrine and died in 2014 PHOTO: Simphiwe Nkwali / Sunday Times / Gallo Images

toilet scandal Mahlodumela Primary School in Limpopo where Michael Komape fell into a pit latrine and died in 2014 PHOTO: Simphiwe Nkwali / Sunday Times / Gallo Images

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Going to the toilet is something we all have to do. But imagine having to relieve yourself in a dilapidated corrugated iron toilet with a corroded seat.

Or maybe one with no doors or windows preventing ventilation and creating a stench attracting flies and other insects. How about one that is so full that you can see maggots and excrement almost overflowing from the seat.

All these describe facilities that children in Limpopo are forced to use; it is therefore no surprise that being forced to use these kinds of toilets has a lifelong effect.

Two weeks ago, in an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa in response to the launch of the Safe Initiative, we drew attention to the deaths of Siyamthanda Mtunu and Lister Magongwa and the injury of Oratile Dilwane.

The letter asked critical questions about the auditing process, criteria for prioritisation of schools, funding for eradication of pit toilets, time frames and the role of provincial departments of education.

When thinking about the minimum characteristics of toilets, one would consider the following; safety, cleanliness, privacy, good ventilation, age-appropriateness, as well as hand-washing facilities nearby. It is particularly worth noting that girl pupils would need a sanitary bin to dispose of sanitary pads.

These characteristics are, of course, in line with national and international standards. Yet for many pupils, these are far from reality.

We interviewed many learners in preparation for a sanitation report, due to be published soon. What follows are but a few examples of a wide combination of challenges children face.

The first were schools with no sanitation facilities at all. Katlego Molato, a former pupil at Mareseleng Secondary School in Limpopo described what this meant for her: “There are no toilets for pupils at Mareseleng and so every day I go to school, I am faced with two choices. Either I can ask the neighbours living close to the school property to use their personal toilets or I relieve myself in the bushes near to Mareseleng. This, too, is not an easy option. To try to ensure some privacy, I go deep into the bushes, which sometimes means walking for about half an hour. Going so deep into the bushes is also a safety risk though, so I will usually wait for a group of my friends [also female pupils] and we go to the bushes in a group. I feel humiliated.”

The second were schools with plain pit toilets:

“I will not go to the toilet alone, they are very scary. So, it’s either I come with one of my friends or we go when it’s the three of us, so that I can feel safe and so that if am going to use the toilet, I can give them my jersey so that I don’t have to go in with it and have it smell when I go out,” said Sina Magata (18), a Grade 12 pupil at Vhulaudzi Secondary School, also in Limpopo.

While pit toilets are accepted, particularly in areas without regular water supply, these should be ventilated to prevent odour and insects. Plain pit toilets were meant to be eradicated by 2016 in terms of the Regulations Relating to Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure.

The third were schools with sanitation facilities that were not fit for purpose or age-appropriate:

“We can’t even have our own privacy,” said a Grade 7 learner. “I am 13 now; I am now big and we can’t have our privacy or take out our pads if there are children there … And we don’t have toilet paper. If we want to use the toilet for more than just urinating, we just take out the paper from our books or anywhere we can get a paper and then go to the toilet,” said Ndibuho Ramabulani, a pupil at Gonela Primary School in Limpopo.

For Ramabulani, managing her period is difficult. While her school has new toilets, these are small cubicles without doors. The privacy she requires to change her sanitary towel during menstruation is nonexistent.

The fourth were schools with insufficient sanitation facilities:

“Break time starts and ends and not all the pupils have relieved themselves. These toilets are few and there are a lot of people. Sometimes I ask to go to the toilet in the period before break so that I can get an opportunity to use the toilet,” said Phatha Mutau, a Grade 12 pupil at Vhulaudzi Secondary School in Limpopo. Phatha and many of her peers are forced to compromise class time to go to the toilet without waiting in lines for the entire duration of their break.

The last were schools with toilets that are not properly cleaned and maintained:

“Our school pit toilets are full and filthy. We cannot use them anymore for our own health and hygiene. Some are completely inaccessible. We are therefore forced to use bushes when we want to relieve ourselves. We walk up to half an hour to get to the bush. The journey would actually be longer had we not cut open the school fence to create a shortcut for ourselves,” said Thabang Sebola (19), a Grade 10 pupil at Bolotswi Secondary School in Limpopo.

What Thabang’s story demonstrates is that without proper maintenance, including regular emptying of the pit, as well as cleaning, facilities become unusable. This results in pupils using nearby bushes to relieve themselves, risking their safety and losing class time.

The stories demonstrate the hardships pupils have to go through to relieve themselves while still trying to keep up with tuition. But beyond that, they show the continued violation of children’s dignity. For thousands of children this is normal throughout their schooling. These scary and embarrassing stories will forever be wedged in their memories.

The Constitution speaks of inherent dignity – recognition of our worth by virtue of being human. Every day that children are forced to attend schools with these facilities is a continued erosion of their dignity. We owe our children more.

- Thabang Pooe is a senior legal researcher at Section27


What should be done to help thousands of pupils who have no sanitation facilities at all or filthy and unhealthy facilities?

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