The Woman-Sanitation Nexus: A Case for Women-Friendly Toilet Systems

Parents at Luna Primary School gathered to celebrate the provision of new toilets after Lumka Mkhethwa drowned in a pit toilet.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the toilet as “a fixture that consists usually of a water-flushed bowl and seat and is used for defecation and urination”. While this definition captures the mechanics associated with a toilet, it neglects what one may consider the rather ‘tacit’ functions of the toilet. To give an idea; in addition to its tangible purpose, the toilet is also a space where we pause to reflect – on self and on our environment, we make big or small decisions, laugh or cry in secret as warranted, etc. 

Those transient minutes of privacy afford us intimacy and vulnerability, regardless of the location. In essence, toilets are not mere facilities of relief; they are, literally and metaphorically, spaces of dignity. In like manner, when we take a brief trip down South African (and global) history, we witness toilets also symbolizing strong political standpoints. From colonial archives we learn that toilets, among other facilities, were used to enforce racial and social discrimination by segregationist regimes, wherein citizens were allocated separate toilets in line with white supremacist values.  

Alas, sanitation challenges across race and class did not suddenly dematerialize at the dawn of democracy, as is the case with other setbacks afflicting the South African community. As I pen this, toilets remain one of the emblems of inequality, delicately dividing the haves from the have-nots. It is thus no surprise that a recent study by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) revealed that approximately 11% of South African households lack proper toilet systems, the bulk of these being in the rural regions of KwaZulu-Natal, North West and the Eastern Cape. Evidently, the toilet denotes the extent of social and economic inclusion in a society. While race and class remain a determinant of access, research reveals that women (and girls) bear the biggest brunt when dignified sanitation is denied a people.

In 2017, WaterAid reported in the ‘State of The World’s Toilets’ publication that 1 in 3 women (girls) in the world are without access to adequate sanitation. In areas where such a reality is immediate, women are forced to walk long distances to remote areas to relieve themselves, a circumstance which subjects them to harassment and/or probable sexual abuse, especially after dark. The report also states that this lack-of-safe-sanitation-induced threat to women’s bodies is mainly prevalent in slums, rural regions, refugee camps and peri-urban settings, confirming henceforth that the deprivation of basic resources amplifies the vulnerabilities of women. Thus, in the intent to address the scourge of violence against women (girls), governments and stakeholders involved in sanitation design and implementation have a responsibility to take cognizance of the intersection between sanitation and gender-based violence and duly prioritize toilet facilities which enhance the safety of women and girls.

In the South African context, efforts toward designing women-friendly sanitation ought to be within the National Water Resource Strategy (NWRS2) framework, which promotes planning which elevates conservation of the water resource. Needless to say, the chronic increase in drought levels in the country indicates that the traditional toilet as we know it, which uses an excessive amount of water per flush, is no longer a viable solution. To rub salt in the wound, the World Wide Fund projects for SA a 17% water deficit by 2030, which clearly suggests that in addition to possessing women-friendly features, sanitation infrastructure must also be water-friendly, i.e. use water sparingly, if any at all. This of course calls for radical designing wherein innovation takes center stage, aka “reinventing the toilet” as sanitation experts would argue.

In this respect, the Water Research Commission (WRC) and partners have invested in accelerating the development of innovative next-generation sanitation solutions which use very little or no water at all. These include the Arumloo toilet, a collaborative effort between Isidima Design and Development, the Water Technologies Demonstration Programme (WADER), the Global Cleantech Innovation Programme (GCIP) and the WRC. The patented toilet system, whose shape is derived from nature’s Arum Lily to enable efficient vortex flow through the toilet bowl, uses less than two litres of water per flush and can be retrofitted in existing buildings and installed in new buildings and community settings. An additional innovative solution is the EcoSan Waterless Toilet System which requires zero water to function. The design is built with a conveyor which rotates each time the lid is lifted, allowing human excrement to fall into a reusable collection bag where it is dried into a compost-like material for use as either fertilizer or biofuel. Moreover, the Lusec Sanitation Solution is an alternative waterless sanitation solution with a built-in mechanism to inactivate all pathogens in human effluent and recycle same into fertilizer. Various other designs of a similar and varied nature exist in the WRC’s diverse innovations database.

All the above considered, it should be noted that for the South African government to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations in which countries have vowed, among other objectives, to pursue gender equality and ensure equitable access to adequate basic services for all by 2030, the implementation of innovative women-friendly toilet infrastructure in unserved areas becomes indispensable. In so doing, the inherent threat of gender-based violence coupled with lack of safe sanitation will be curbed, and, by extension – gender equality advanced.


Thembela Ntlemeza is the Technology Transfer Officer at the Water Research Commission and writes and her personal capacity.