By Tassel Bulanda (WaterAid Zambia)
WaterAid Zambia and the Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) Coalition Tanzania co-hosted a session during the 2019 SADC People Summit, an event that looked at women empowerment and justice with special emphasis on menstrual hygiene management, female friendly toilets in public places and access to adequate sanitation for people living with disability. The attendance was over whelming as people were eager to learn and understand the issues around female friendly toilets in public places and the MHM services and products.
The session was characterised by testimonies, practical exercises and demonstration of the issues discussed. The exercises included; men tied with a wrapper and a pillow to represent a pregnant woman and squatting to use the toilet. Almost all the volunteers that came failed to bend down to be able to use the toilet. The exercise was meant to emphasize the need for proper toilets for pregnant women. Furthermore, the other practical exercise was a person whose knee was wrapped to represent a person living with disability and is not able to fold his leg and was required to use the toilet without any support. This person too failed to bend and use the facility as there was no support in terms of rails. The third exercise was that of a blind folded person who went into the pit latrine or toilet without any support. This again proved to be a challenge in that firstly most of these toilets have steps, when they get inside they have to feel the some structures to be able to use the facility. This process highlighted the challenges faced by visually impaired people when trying to access ablution facilities.
The other aspect looked at was the issue of public toilets availability which most people confessed that public toilets are usually unavailable. Some of the participants attested that in most cases, they refrain from using the available public toilets because they are never clean, characterized by dry cistern tanks and are not disability or female friendly.
Access to sanitary pads when they are needed the most whilst women are doing shopping, attending public gatherings or functions or travelling has also proved to be a challenge as these are not readily available by the venders for easy access. Assuming a person has a sanitary pad and needed to change, the current public toilets have no bins for disposal of such materials. These indeed are the lamentation of women in accessing sanitary pads and use of the public toilet toilets that do not support women.
The points driven in the session were that there is need to have toilets in public places that are friendly – inclusive and sensitive to the plight of the people living with disabilities and women. This therefore means that governments across the region should support the process of producing and distributing sanitary pads to ensure consumers are not exploited and that they receive quality and healthy sanitary pads. All the points above send an emphatic message to all African leaders and especially the SAD leadership, local authorities in SADC member states to start prioritizing access to sanitation facilities in public places such as markets, bus stations, ports and Central Business Districts (CBDs)to guarantee citizens access to ablution facilities. Participants demanded that:
- The SADC body must ensure governments across all SADC member states prioritise the provision of inclusive, female (gender) friendly water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)facilities in public places such as markets bus stations, ports, schools, health care facilities.
- Governments across the SADC region must ensure that there is accessibility and availability of controlled quality menstrual hygiene products that are affordable to all classes of society by supporting the supply chain process at all levels in order to protect the vulnerable groups.
The session was well attended by the main summit delegates which also saw a blind youth giving a testimony of the challenges that she faces in her day today life including the challenges she faced whilst attending the 2019 SADC People’s Summit in terms of accessing ablution facilities. Royce Banda, a youth from Zambia living with a disability emphasized the need to make public toilets responsive to the many needs of the girls, women, the elderly and those living with disabilities.
A Gender Expert, Madam Sara Longwe from Zambia spoke on the perspective of viewing the topic as a gender issue that men and women have special needs which require attention. Therefore, public places should never be source of infection but rather be places for answering the call of nature in a dignified manner. Mama Malima, the chairperson for the MHM Coalition Tanzania and the co-host for the Women Empowerment and Justice thematic area, emphasised on the need to have all public toilets and indeed any other toilet to have hand washing facilities with soap for health purposes. Mahema, who is a visually impaired teacher emphasized that most of the blind people are able to read but have been denied that opportunity to access valuable information on issues like menstrual hygiene and the importance of female and disability friendly toilets in the sense that investment in Braille on that information has not been much. Most of the literature cannot be accessed by the blind. With support from SAWA, a local Non-Governmental Organisation championing MHM, Mahema has been instrumental in translating literature on MHM in braille to ensure that visually impaired people are not left behind. She however, appealed for support from governments across the region to invest in translation of this information to braille in order for it to reach out to the many vulnerable but viable people. The appeal was further extended to organizations that champion various products. The session ended with people sampling the many displayed sanitary pads both disposable and reusable by various NGOs and companies who were marketing their products.