College of Law Faculty Scholarship

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Journal of Comparative Urban Law and Policy

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The body of 19-year-old Sinoxolo Mafevuka was found in a communal toilet in the Cape Town, South African urban township of Khayelitsha. Sinoxolo had been viciously raped, strangled to death, and her body discarded, with her head under the toilet seat and her genitals displayed openly. Tragically, while Sinoxolo’s murder is a particularly brutal example, using a neighborhood toilet in many informal settlements is an incredibly dangerous activity, and there are estimates that 10.5 million South Africans do not have ready access to toilets. “Women, children and men of all ages are frequently robbed, raped, assaulted and murdered on the way to relieve themselves in a toilet, bushes or empty clearings often very far from their homes.”

Nor is South Africa an outlier. Similar incidences have been reported in India. For example, in 2014, two teenage girls were gang-raped then murdered by being hanged from a tree while going to the toilet outdoors in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the home of the iconic Taj Mahal monument. In Kenyan slums, women have suffered rape and other forms of violence when traveling to and from toilet facilities. One Kenyan mother of three had just exited a community toilet in Nairobi when five men dragged her to an abandoned house and sexually assaulted her, infecting her with HIV. Horrendous accounts such as these have been reported across the globe.

Sexual violence is but one of the disproportionate consequences that the lack of adequate sanitation imposes on women and girls. Poor nutrition and harmful health impacts can result when women restrict their food and liquid intake or “hold” their need to go the toilet. Girls’ educations suffer incommensurately too from a lack of sanitation as they are more frequently absent than their male counterparts. There also is a loss of dignity, a shame, that women feel when being heard or seen while relieving themselves at a community toilet or in a public outdoor space.

Obviously, the consequences of these conditions are severe, for both individuals and governments. One such consequence is a high financial burden. A study by researchers from Yale calculated the costs associated with “toilet travel” sexual assaults in Khayelitsha to be approximately US$40 million per year, including tangible costs such as medical expenses, lost earnings, and the cost of legal proceedings and penal institutions as well as intangible costs such as pain and suffering and the risk of homicide. Advocates for the women and girls experiencing this gendered, humiliating, and potentially life-threatening daily struggle to access toilets are not making extravagant or unusual demands; they are simply attempting to gain non-discriminatory access to the basic human right to sanitation “contained in existing human rights treaties and is therefore legally binding” under international law.

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