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April 2019

Surely access to toilets is a basic human right?

Written by Nathalie Leblond
Cleanliness and Hygiene

The 21st March is Human Rights day and a public holiday in South Africa, and if you are lucky enough to be in full-time employment, you would have had a paid day off to contemplate life, the universe and everything in between. Hopefully you spared a thought for the reason we get a day off: to recognise the importance of human rights generally (as defined by the United Nations in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) but also - more specifically within the context of our South African history - to commemorate the events that took place at Sharpville on the 21st March 1960.

On that day 69 people died and 180 were wounded when police fired on a peaceful crowd that had gathered in protest the Pass laws. Sharpeville marked an affirmation by ordinary people, rising in unison to proclaim their rights, and has thus become an iconic date in our country’s history. We commemorate the 21st March every year as Human Rights Day, and as a reminder of the cost paid in order to have even the most basic of human rights applied to every individual in South Africa regardless of race, colour or creed.

In terms of the South African Bill of Rights everyone has a right to life, equality and human dignity, including (amongst other things) the right to a healthy environment.  Human dignity and the right to a healthy environment. This covers all manner of things, but because I work for a hygiene company, it got me thinking about a shocking statistic that I read recently whilst doing some research for another blog post. It was this: a staggering 4.5 billion people currently live without access to a safe toilet, and 892 million people still practice open defecation.

I’m pretty sure that most of us take for granted that at any given point in our day we’ll have ready access to a clean and functional toilet when nature calls, be it at home, at the office or at school.  But do we ever spare a thought for those people that don’t? The 892 million people who are having to go to the toilet in the streets, fields and bushes near their homes.  Not much human dignity in that is there, so I hope that statistic shocked you as much as it did me.

Lack of basic human dignity aside, open defecation is problematic for a number of other reasons, the most critical of which is health (impacting our right to a healthy environment). It means that human faeces, on a massive scale, is not being captured or treated, and - to put it baldly - we are turning our environment into a massive open sewer. The impact of this is devastating for public health, living and working conditions, nutrition, education and economic productivity around the world.

Open defecation is one of the main causes of diarrhoea and other deadly diseases such as cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, polio and worms. And here’s another horrifying statistic: accordingly to the Centre for Disease Control diarrhoea kills 2,195 children every day, accounting for 1 in 9 child deaths worldwide.  That’s over 800 00 children a year - more than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. This makes diarrhoea the second leading cause of death among children under the age of 5.  Latest estimates from the World Health Organisation also indicate that more than 880 million children are in need of treatment for intestinal worms as a result of inadvertently ingesting faeces.

But the problems raised by open defecation go beyond the (extremely serious) issues of indignity and disease. Girls and women living in areas where open defecation is widespread often have to wait until the cover of darkness to venture outside to relieve themselves.  The lack of a safe toilet close to home can result in attack, rape and even murder.

According to StatsSA, the percentage of households in SA that have access to improved sanitation “increased from 61,7% in 2002 to 82,2% in 2017, but despite the improved access to sanitation facilities, many households continue to be without any proper sanitation facilities”.  By this, they mean that households have access to shared or communal toilets, rather than having to resort to open defecation. But shared toilets or community toilets do not address the needs of women and girls who are at greater risk of harassment and sexual violence than men. They are also usually poorly maintained, ultimately also posing a health risk for illnesses such as cholera and diarrhoea.

And what about the lack of safe toilets in our schools? More than 4,500 schools in South Africa have pit latrines, and it was only after (another) tragic child drowning in a school pit latrine in the Eastern Cape in March last year that the government committed to getting rid of all school pit latrines within the next 2 years. "This is an initiative that will save lives and restore the dignity of tens of thousands of our nation's children," President Cyril Ramaphosa said.

Approximately 60% of all children not enrolled in school due to the lack of adequate sanitation are female. Clean and safe toilets help keep more girls in school and increase attendance rates, as many girls stop attending school when they start to menstruate due to the lack of adequate toilet facilities. Clean and safe toilets are thus not only prerequisites for health and wellness but also for the education of our girl-children.

The 2015 Millennium Development Goal target to halve the proportion of people living without access to safe sanitation is currently running 150 years behind schedule; a clear indication of a global crisis.  Yet it’s a topic that goes largely un-talked about.  A human rights issue? I would argue definitely.  

Whilst Initial can’t single-handedly solve the issues I’ve raised above, we do pride ourselves on working within our communities to spread the message of good hygiene practices. You can learn more about this here.

Contact Initial for more information on our hygiene services, or call us on 0800 777788 to book a free survey of your bathrooms.

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Nathalie Leblond

Nathalie Leblond

Nathalie is the Category Manager at Rentokil Initial, and has worked in the hygiene and pest control industry for 12 years. Although after 12 years cockroaches still have the power to terrify her, she has learnt countless ways to defeat germs both in the workplace and at home. She is a passionate advocate for Global Handwash Day and the health benefits that can be derived from regular handwashing and hygiene practices. When not contributing to the Initial blog, Nathalie is writing press releases for sister businesses, Rentokil and Ambius. You can find her on LinkedIn.

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