Reports of children dying by falling into pit latrines in South Africa over the past few years followed by a flurry of legal cases saw the President launch a new Sanitation Appropriate for Education (SAFE) Initiative last week in partnership with the private sector. It is a response to “an urgent human need”, he said, that would “spare generations of young South Africans the indignity, discomfort and danger of using pit latrines and other unsafe facilities in our schools”.
South Africa has nearly 4,000, mostly rural and township, schools that only have pit latrines or other inappropriate sanitation facilities. Following an appeal to the private sector, various companies and organizations pledged almost R45 million ($3 million), as well as the pro bono provision of professional and technical services that will enable the implementation of SAFE projects. As part of this initiative, companies will build new-technology toilets for schools or adopt groups of schools as model schools for joint sanitation-water-energy off-grid solutions.
The issue is a contentious one. The very same day that the President launched this initiative, the education department took a fight against a judgement forcing it to stop using pit latrines in school to the constitutional court – the highest court in the land. So the media reported, the department is not willing to take on the responsibility for providing other services to pit latrines. A test case for accountability, it appears, where responsibilities are shirked, and the law is being called upon to protect people’s right to an education.
Access to basic sanitation is part of delivering a quality education. As our research indicated in the 2017/8 GEM Report, among 145 countries with data, primary school access to basic sanitation facilities was below 50% in 28 countries, including 17 in sub-Saharan Africa. Data are limited on whether girls have separate facilities, let alone whether the facilities are well maintained or even functional. Meanwhile learners with disabilities face particular obstacles, such as lack of mobility equipment and inappropriately designed buildings, an issue we will cover in the 2020 GEM Report on inclusion and education.
Infrastructure deficiencies tend to be more common in schools serving disadvantaged populations. In Turkey, 4% of principals serving better-off populations but 69% of those serving disadvantaged populations reported that teaching was hindered by bad physical infrastructure. In Latin America, poor primary students are far less likely to attend schools with basic water and sanitation. In Mexico, 19% of the poorest grade 3 students attended schools with adequate water and sanitations facilities, compared to 84% of the richest students.
Poor sanitation facilities are a global issue affecting many countries, South Africa’s private-public partnership is one approach to tackling it. The role of companies, as potential funders and innovators, is recognized and embedded in the implementation vision of the sustainable development agenda. However, fruitful engagement with the private sector requires clear roles, transparent processes, and government commitment and capacity for monitoring. We will look into the role of non-state actors in education in the 2021 GEM Report.