The Link Between Functioning Toilets and Justice

Open Society Foundations – In Khayelitsha, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Cape Town, residents play near toilets that are crumbling, clogged, and dirty. This lack of access to proper sanitation is not just a health hazard—it’s a crucial issue for development, safety, access to justice, and human rights.

The South African constitution guarantees the right to equality and dignity, and also an extensive list of socioeconomic rights, the realization of which is frustrated by a lack of access to basic sanitation facilities. Millions of South Africans still lack access to basic sanitation, including at least 500,000 in Cape Town.

According to a recently released report [PDF] from a community-led social audit, a collaboration of the Social Justice Coalition and Ndifuna Ukwazi (Dare to Know), with technical assistance from the International Budget Partnership (IBP), accessing basic sanitation is still a daily struggle.

The report found that 26 percent of the0 toilets in Khayelitsha’s informal settlements do not work, with 15 percent of them blocked, 12 percent without water, and 6 percent without a sewage pipe. According to IBP, “In some cases, as many as 10 to 26 families were sharing a single toilet.”

The report’s key findings also showed a lack of proper worker safeguards: janitors do not have proper training, protective gear, or the required cleaning equipment, and only one in eight cleaners is inoculated against disease.

The lack of adequate sanitation services results in ill health and compromises safety. As the report notes, “Some residents are left to use open fields and bushes and become most vulnerable to criminal attacks, especially at night.”

No one should have to fear assault, rape, or murder while going to the toilet, yet this is an everyday reality for many South Africans and the world’s poor.

In our commitment to end poverty and ensure human development, community-led social audits offer one powerful way for the poor to seek access to justice from both the state and private providers of public services.

By attempting to verify public service delivery and facilitating transparency and accountability, the community-led social audit approach has been successful in exposing—and, over time, reducing—corruption andenhancing basic services in India and Ghana, and elsewhere in the global South.

In South Africa, the community used a social audit to investigate how ZAR 60 million (about US$5 million) of public resources was utilized.

The audit included the residents of Khayelitsha and various partners in inspecting 528 toilets and interviewing 193 Khayelitsha residents and 31 janitors. The report convincingly calls for specific and workable government actions to rectify gaps in services that are provided by the private sector via the local municipality.

The power of a community-led social audit shows why access to justice should be an element of the UN’s post-2015 sustainable development goals agenda. Access to justice is the vehicle for the realization of the right to development, providing practical and substantive content for its achievement. The community-led social audit is not just a victory for transparency and good governance, but also shows that marginalized communities can ensure that development is meaningful in their lives. It gives citizens the power to participate in decisions that directly affect them.

Demanding that fundamental rights be realized is not only imperative for development but also a constitutional and legal obligation that falls on the state. In other words, there can be no development without justice and freedom.

It’s time we ensure sustainable development starts with those who are most affected. With justice, we can do just that.

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