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Sanitation: ‘Flying-Toilets’ insulate women from rape

Adapted from : Women News Network
Kenya correspondent Tabitha Nderitu – Women News Network – WNN
December 27, 2010 ·
Nairobi, Kenya – When darkness descends in the ubiquitous slums and ‘informal settlements’ surrounding Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, women who visit and use communal toilets unwittingly become sitting ducks.

The dangers are high, for women living in the slums, that they may become targets of youth gangs and individual male rapists.

“I had heard that it was unsafe to visit the (community) toilet alone,” said forty-two year old, Rebecca Nduku, a single mother of three, when she challenged her friend’s ‘I-told-you-so’ warning. Acting against advice, Rebecca suffered irrevocably for throwing caution to the wind.

“I reasoned that since it was only 7:30 p.m., and there were many people walking around, it would be safe to visit the toilet, which was located only about 100 meters away,” explained Nduku. “The moment I unlocked the toilet’s wooden door to walk back home I was dragged to an abandoned house where I was abused, in turns, by five men until I blacked out.”

This incident happened in Kibera – the most populous slum in Kenya – only a ten minute drive from Nairobi’s Central Business District. Unfortunately the traumatic experience left Rebecca Nduku HIV positive.

“I do not know whether to blame God or myself for the misfortune that befell me,” she exclaims. “It was a Sunday and I had spent, ironically, almost the whole day in Church,” recalls Rebecca with tears.

The rape of women living in Nairobi’s informal settlements who are forced to use community toilets, located outside their homes, has now escalated to a clear and identified point of danger.

The July 2010 report, “Risking Rape to Reach a Toilet – Women’s Experiences in the Slums of Nairobi, Kenya,” by human rights organization, Amnesty International UK, offers a searing and detailed account on the lives of 130 Nairobi women who live in constant fear in the four largest slums surrounding the city.

In failing to include informal settlements and slums within mainstream urban planning, the City of Nairobi and the Ministry of Public Health has been faltering. In spite of social services and specific campaigns addressing safety challenges for women, successful programs remain a ‘mirage.’“The continued exclusion of slums and informal settlements from the city’s planning processes, in particular the non-enforcement of existing sanitation standards, results in stark disparities in access to sanitation facilities between slums and informal settlement areas and other residential areas,” said Amnesty International after assessments were made on the continuing challenges and problems with sanitation and safety for women.

“Many women have suffered rape and other forms of violence as a result of attempting to walk to a toilet or latrine some distance from their home,” outlines the Amnesty report. “To avoid these dangers, women sometimes wash or use latrines in groups or ask male family members to accompany them at night. However, this does not alter the fact that facilities are inadequate and inaccessible.”

Women living within the settlements have been reduced to “prisoners within their own homes,” said Dr. Godfrey Odongo, a research associate for Amnesty International.

“Traditionally women require utmost privacy compared to their male counterparts when bathing or using the toilet; but because these facilities are inaccessible, or situated long distances from their homes, women are vulnerable particularly to rape,” explains Dr. Odongo.

United Nations statistics show that 16 million Kenyans – 40% of the country’s population – currently live in slums. This number has been swiftly growing. From 1990 to 2010, UN Habitat estimates that the number of inhabitants has increased to 50%, or 20 million Kenyans presently living in slum conditions. In the next 30 years, the number of persons living in slum communities in Kenya is expected to reach an unimaginable figure – “nearly 2 billion.”

With widening conditions of urban poverty come increasing inadequate protections for women. Police protection is often negligible inside the boundaries of the slums and informal settlements surrounding Nairobi. Sanitation is an ongoing challenge. Only 24% of residents in Nairobi slums and informal settlements have regular access to toilets at a household level.

“I always underestimated the threat of violence,” says 19 year old Amina. “…I would go to the latrine any time, so long as it was not late at night, until about two months ago when I almost became a victim.”

Amina was rescued just in time when 4 men accosted her in Mathare, a notorious slum located 20 minutes from Nairobi’s Central Business District. Lucky for her, nearby residents were alerted by her screams and came to her rescue.

“The lack of policing in slums increases the ever-present threat of rape and other violence faced by women. There is little police presence and no permanent police station or post in Kibera – Kenya’s largest slum settlement,” says the 2010 Amnesty International report. “The lack of policing in slums is mainly down to the fact that the government has failed to recognize slums for city planning and budgeting purposes.”The thirst for urban settlement has “increased tremendously here in the past 5 years,” says World Health Organization (WHO) country representative, Dr. David Okello, who describes the phenomenon as “a crisis” if solutions are not found “fast.”

Nairobi could be heading toward urban catastrophe with a rapidly rising population of 509,282 in 1969 to 3.31 million last year, as outlined by the 2009 national Kenyan government census.

Tirop Kosgey, Permanent Secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Housing, acknowledges a serious problem does exist in regard to providing decent safe urban housing. Government targets in housing are falling short by an estimated 30-60%, a shortfall attributed to poor infrastructure and low investments in the sector.

“Instead of the targeted annual 150,000 (housing) units, the government is only realizing 30,000-40,000 units within the same period,” outlines Kosgey. The high cost of mortgages and building materials means that only 16% of Kenyans now own their home.

“A basic human right,” described the National Environmental Sanitation and Hygiene Policy (NESHP) in 2007, along with Kenya’s Health Ministry, on the rights for all Kenyan citizens to own proper and sanitary housing.

In facing ongoing problems of violence against women, many women in the informal settlements and slums have improvised their own solutions toward safety. It involves avoiding community toilets completely.

The theory is simple. “Flying toilets,” bags that are used instead of bathroom facilities, are part of the answer to violence. But the often thin plastic bags come with many complications. They are extremely unsanitary. Once the bags are loaded with excrement, they are flung through windows eventually breaking open as they expose surrounding areas to numerous pathogens.

Needs for sanitation has caused a new invention to surface. It is more sanitary than standard flying toilets. Called the PeePoo bag, it was invented by Swedish architecture professor, Anders Wilhelmson, in 2005. Still in its testing phase, the PeePoo bag is designed to turn human faeces into compost fertilizer in only a few days through a natural chemical process inside the bag. The hope is that these new bags can help break the cycle of contamination and disease in the slums of Kenya.

Until a lasting solution with urban housing and proper government sanitation management is found, along with greater safeguards for urban women, Kenya’s informal settlements and slums will remain incubators for violent crime, gang activity and unavoidable sickness. Women fearing the realities of rape in public community toilets will remain common until adequate and fully financed programs can be put in place on the ground.

Amina did not make a formal complaint to police authorities, when she was attacked in her community toilet, for fear of reprisal from her assailants. Neither did Rebecca Nduku. Both privately think they are still being watched by their predators. This is a sure sign that fear may forever define their lives as long as these women remain part of Kenya’s critically poor.

“Ask anyone what it will take to make women’s equality a reality and ‘toilets’ will probably not be the response. Yet it is difficult to exaggerate the impact that access to private, safe and sanitary toilets would have on the daily lives and long-term prospects of the 1.3 billion women and girls that are currently doing without,” said (WHO) the World Health Organization in 2004.

Because of conditions of ongoing violence, women living in the informal settlements and slums of Nairobi have been advised by their fellow community members to hold onto their ‘flying-toilets’ with their dear lives.Jane Iyeango, a resident of Kibera slum, gives a tour of her toilet, shared with numerous neighbors who hold a key to the locked facility. The toilet is not free. Jane pays monthly for this service which has no running water and can be hazardous, exposing her to numerous pathogens. Image: BBC World Service

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