Despite learner deaths, several court interventions and the outright banning of pit toilets at schools by the Minimum uniform norms and standards for public school infrastructure (the school infrastructure law) in 2013 this type of sanitation remains a reality for learners around the country.
Equal Education, which advocates for the rights of learners, recently shone a spotlight on the issue in Limpopo, demanding urgent intervention to address sanitation challenges for all priority 1 schools in the province.
Speaking to Health-e News, Equal Education junior organiser Tiny Lebelo says that it is concerning that it has been more than ten years since the introduction of the school infrastructure law. But almost all of the school sanitation delivery deadlines (2016 and 2020) have been missed.
“What happened with the Limpopo Education Department was that they had prioritised schools according to priority. So there is priority 1,2 and 3 and each priority has a category. There is inappropriate sanitation, inadequate sanitation and appropriate sanitation and for them to do this they were ordered by the high court in the Michael Komape case,” explains Lebelo.
Continued use of dangerous pit toilets at schools
Priority 1 schools are schools with illegal plain pit toilets as their only form of sanitation. Lebelo says it is worrying that learners continue to report unsafe sanitation conditions at schools.
“With each priority, there is a deadline that the department has given itself. So priority 1 for them to provide sanitation upgrades was until 31 March 2023 and then priority 2 is March 2027. And so with priority 3, because it is not as dire as it would be with priority 1 and 2 it’s a bit later,” she says.
But the provincial education department has not yet fulfilled its obligation and it has missed its deadline for priority 1 schools.
“There are priority 1 schools that we use as our site in the struggle such as Tutwana Primary School and Seipone Secondary and they are still using pit latrines and they are still under priority 1. It is a grave concern that learners in most schools in Limpopo rely on plain pit toilets as their only form of sanitation option available. While others are being exposed to dangerous or broken enviro-loos and ventilated improved pit toilets,” says Lebelo.
According to the Equal Education report Tshedimošo Mo Dikolong Tša Go Hloka Seriti (A Review of Schools, since 2015, the organisation has repeatedly been raising issues about water and sanitation at schools in Limpopo as a barrier to quality teaching and learning. At some schools, learners say there are few or no functioning toilets at school, which makes it difficult to participate actively in one’s education.
Why are we still talking about pit toilets in 2023?
Lebelo says eradicating pit latrines should not still be a topic of discussion in 2023. She says the Limpopo Education Department has not prioritised their eradication in schools in the province.
“We are scared that there is going to be another Michael Komape situation and we do not want that. We don’t want any more deaths in schools due to pit latrines, we cannot be talking about pit latrines in 2023,” says Lebelo.
Michael Komape was five years old and had just started school when he died. He fell and drowned inside a pit toilet during break time at Mahlodumela Primary School in Chebeng village, outside Polokwane on January 20, 2014.
Lydia Komape, Michael’s older sister, expresses disappointment that there are children who still have to use pit toilets at school. And each time they do, their lives are at risk.
“We are so disappointed because we had thought that the Department of Education in Limpopo will by now have already removed all pit toilets within schools in the province. So it tells us that my brother’s death was not enough to convince them to act urgently to eradicate those toilets. What are they waiting for? Another death of a learner? For them to act. It is not fair for learners to be forced to use pit toilets which can harm their lives at any given time,” says Komape.
Public being given incorrect information
Lebelo says that the department has also failed to provide adequate and truthful information in terms of the process to eradicate plain pit latrines at schools.
“They said recently that they have reached 99% in completion and eradication of pit latrines which is wrong. Because what we see, and what their reports are saying is different,” says Lebelo.
Additionally, she notes the department always blames implementing agencies, suppliers or contractors when asked why they haven’t finished eradicating such toilets.
“I don’t think that those things should be the community’s problems, because when they contract people they need to monitor that process, they need to monitor the entire process of the construction. So for them to say it’s an implementing agency problem or it’s a contractor problem is really them shifting the blame on their responsibility as a department,” says Lebelo.
Earlier this year, Health-e News reported how a five-year-old girl is using the same pit latrine at school as her father did 20 years ago. This is as the Mabila Primary School in Vhembe continues to wait for the provincial education department to build proper sanitation facilities.
The World Health Organisation reports that 829 000 people in low-and-middle-income countries die each year due to inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene, accounting for 60% of total diarrhoeal deaths. Poor sanitation is the leading cause of 432 000 of these deaths and is a major factor in several neglected tropical diseases, including intestinal worms and malnutrition.-Health-e News.