By some strange coincidence, the world celebrates toilets and men on November 19 every year. This year, residents of Tudor Ward presented Mombasa County Assembly Members with feaces ceremonially wrapped in a beautiful box and an open letter. Their demand was simple and in line with the theme this year. The Mombasa County Government must not leave any behind, behind.
Despite progress globally, struggling to find a clean, safe and available toilet is still a familiar experience for many of us. Four out of seven people on the planet don’t have a safe way of managing the 350 million tonnes of human waste they produce annually. A total of 670 million people regularly relieve themselves in open spaces.
Fifty-six years after independence, more than 61 per cent of Nairobians live in a one room unit and only 4 per cent live in homes with more than four rooms. Only 62 per cent of Nairobians use a flushing toilet, 32 per cent use pit latrines and 6 per cent use open spaces or other means. Six hundred kilometres away, Muoroto community members decided to do something this year about the lack of toilet access.
Muoroto is an informal settlement in Tudor water-front. Ten thousand human beings live, trade and work here. They have one public toilet, no waste management sewage system or access to public drinking water. They buy 20 litre jerry cans for between Sh50 and Sh100. Like any other informal settlement in the country, being poor is not only undignified, it is also expensive.
Muoroto is already within the sights of the Mombasa County government and national government. Under social housing and slum upgrading programmes, it has been indicated that they may be relocated to new houses after the upgrading of Mombasa’s ten old council estates. The draft Beach Management County Bill may bring its own risks. It remains to be seen whether these initiatives will not further displace and impoverish this community and others. In the meantime, the good men and women of the Mombasa County Assembly could prioritise water and sanitation for the Muoroto in the County Integrated Development Plan and Budget.
Experts tell us toilets save lives, protect our dignity and create opportunities for others. There is also a feminist lens to this. On average, women empty their bladder more regularly and take at least 30 seconds longer than men. They also use toilets to change sanitary pads and care for children. Modern female toilets usually have two to three more supplies than male toilets. Yet men usually enjoy more facilities than women and trans-gender and inter-sex persons have none. A men’s toilet with a cubicle and five urinals is usually allocated the same space as three cubicles in the women’s toilet. Yes my brothers, this is the reason women’s queues are usually longer and women take longer.
Toilets are not just an issue of equity, they are also a matter of rights and dignity. For decades, slum neglect and then demolition has been a well-established cruel technique of political and social control. Governments have failed to provide meaningful levels of water and sanitation to people living in slums and informal settlements. Treating some human beings differently from others without an objective, reasonable and humane argument is discriminatory and irresponsible. If essential services cannot be supplied to areas that are unsuitable for people to live, then the government should provide a minimum level of sanitation as they develop resettlement plans to new locations where they can.
Failure to do this will open the door for more creative and direct actions by residents in the same situation as Muoroto. Where could this end? Processions of parents dropping off their children at county headquarters to be schooled, relatives dropping off their sick or dead who need treatment or burials they cannot afford and citizens relieving themselves on the county governor’s official car. Another creative idea could be to hang signs on all public toilets on World Toilet Day that say, “Closed today in solidarity with 670 million people.” Let us not get there.
Sanitary and right to water and health standards, framed by our Constitution, the Public Health Act and building codes, should be rigorously enforced, accelerated and invested in. Within five kilometres of most residents and State Officers reading this article there is an informal urban settlement or a rural village that is denied the most basic of services, a safe and clean toilet. Think about this the next time you visit a toilet.
- Irungu Houghton is Amnesty International Executive Director. [email protected]