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Sanitation’s Role In Shaping The Future Of South African Children

  • 4 min read

By Nathan Palmer, Unilever Southern Africa Homecare Director

The state of sanitation within South Africa’s educational institutions critically shapes the developmental arc of our nation’s children. Suboptimal sanitary conditions pose a multifaceted threat to pupils, not solely to their physical health but also to their educational outcomes and psychological well-being.

However, the creation of sanitary infrastructure alone does not suffice; the crux lies equally in its maintenance. Enduring sanitation solutions require a collaborative effort that transcends sectoral boundaries, ensuring that investments in sanitation are both sustainable and effective in fostering a supportive environment for our youth.

Imagine a child, bright-eyed and brimming with potential, stepping into the confines of a school only to be met with the stark reality of inadequate sanitation facilities. This is a plight faced by too many of our children – where the school, a place of learning and growth, also becomes a ground for a different, more harrowing kind of education – one where the lessons learned are about avoiding illness, maintaining privacy, and often, a silent endurance of discomfort.

Recent reports suggest that 3,398 of the country’s schools still use pit latrines, affecting 34,489 teachers and 1,042,698 learners. But this challenge is not confined to South African borders. Globally, it is estimated that 28% of schools still lack basic sanitation services, impacting 539 million pupils. 

The ramifications of inadequate sanitation extend beyond the immediate susceptibility to communicable diseases; they perpetuate a cycle of absenteeism and academic underperformance. The exposure to pathogens in unsanitary facilities precipitates a range of gastrointestinal ailments in children, often leading to dehydration and nutrient malabsorption, which are critical for cognitive development and academic progress.

But this impact also transcends the physical, burrowing deep into the psyche of our young ones. 

The constant anxiety associated with unsafe and undignified sanitation conditions engenders a state of psychosocial stress that is not conducive to learning. It undermines pupils’ intrinsic motivation, erodes their self-esteem, and can potentially precipitate long-term mental health issues. The stigmatisation associated with sanitation-related diseases further isolates affected children, impeding their social development and integration.

The School Toilet Report by Domestos revealed that 12% of children surveyed in India, Poland, South Africa, and the UK found it hard to concentrate in class due to ‘holding it in’ to avoid using dirty and poorly maintained school toilets; and almost one in ten (7%) children missed school to avoid using the toilets.

Overcoming this challenge necessitates a paradigm where maintenance is granted the same stature and dedication as the initial establishment of sanitary infrastructure. The efficacy of sanitation facilities is intrinsically tied to their upkeep; without it, the benefits of the infrastructure are temporary. This requires the integration of maintenance protocols into the fabric of educational and public health policy, underscored by adequate funding, skilled personnel, and a responsive feedback mechanism to address issues as they arise. It also requires collaboration across various sectors. 

For example, since 2010, Domestos has championed the cause of enhanced sanitation and hygiene in South African schools. By collaborating closely with the Department of Basic Education, the brand has spearheaded a comprehensive strategy to elevate hygiene standards. 

Domestos’ Infrastructure Programme spearheads the critical refurbishment of school sanitation facilities, while its National Schools Hygiene Programme instils essential hygiene practices in Grade 1 learners across public schools. Complementing these, the Cleaner Toilets Brighter Futures Programme empowers school staff with the skills needed for effective sanitation management. 

In 2023 alone, these initiatives have made a significant impact, reaching over a million learners in more than 17 000 schools and training  teachers and cleaners in 201 schools to create a sustainable change and aiding in a healthy learning environment.

However, more needs to be done. 

It is estimated that achieving universal coverage in schools globally by 2030 will require a three-fold increase in the rate of progress on basic sanitation, and a five-fold increase in basic hygiene services.

This year’s World Toilet Day, commemorated under the theme ‘Accelerating Change’, serves as a stark reminder that the task at hand is to continue to build, maintain, and improve upon the sanitary solutions that safeguard the well-being of our children, who bear the promise of our nation’s future. Through consistent and collaborative efforts, we can aspire to a standard of sanitation that reflects our commitment to the health, education, and dignity of every South African learner.