Case study of gender impacts of alternative sanitation system on the lives of women in South Africa: a case study of Soshanguve



The new democratic government of South Africa has prioritized housing and basic services in order to better the lives of the majority of South Africans. The majority of South Africans ( at least 60% of the population), have neither basic services no shelter. This sector of the population depends on government intervention, since their incomes are low, and therefore they can contribute very little towards the installation of the services. This constraint has resulted in several cost effective solutions being offered to the low income groups, specifically around sanitation systems. Most of these systems have not worked well, due to either maintenance problems or general community rejection. It has therefore become important that these systems should be evaluated in terms of their sustainability in the low income sector and whether it is advisable or cost effective for government to offer them as solutions.

In rural areas of South Africa, almost all low income rural households use pit latrines for sanitation purposes. The standard of rural household pit latrines vary considerably, from the most basic structure made of plastic with a hole, to a brick structure with a toilet seat. The actual usage of the toilets by the households also varies, the poorly constructed structures are usually unsafe and unhygienic, as a result children seldom use them. The upgrading of rural toilets has therefore become a focus of the government as part of a primary health approach. The search for effective solutions that can be applied in areas where there is no portable water, is therefore a priority for the department of housing and the department of health.


The study area is located in the province of Gauteng, one of the nine provinces in South Africa. Gauteng has a population of seven million in an area of 18.8 square kilometers. The province is mostly urbanized with most of its population living in urban townships or peri – urban areas. Gauteng is the financial capital of South

Africa, and it is also the seat of government. Pretoria, the capital city of South Africa is located in Gauteng Province, and Soshanguve is one of the Metropolitan Local Councils in northern Pretoria (see map 1 and Map 2). It is one of the townships that were established for black families outside major cities in 1974. Before the democratic elections in 1994, the township fell under the homeland of Bophuthatswana, but was administered by The Provincial Administration, as a town with full municipal status.

Soshanguve is 7342 hectares in size, with an estimated population of 438 000 residents, and 44 000 households in the formal township. It is estimated that 38% of its people live in informal areas. The area include the best preserved meteorite impact site in the world, the Tswaing Pretoria Salt Pan; which dates back some 200 000 years. This site is being developed by the National Cultural History Museum as a world renown geological site.


Until 1994, no new low income housing stock was built in South Africa. The previous state adopted a policy of influx control that prevented blacks from coming into urban areas except when they had jobs in white industry. This absence of formal housing resulted in a lot of informal areas developing around the industrial centers, and this section of Soshanguve is one of them. The formal township of Soshanguve has standard services like portable water, electricity, tarred roads, sewerage system and storm water drainage. The informal township of Soshanguve TT only has basic services.

Most of the people who live in the informal area of Soshanguve are employed in low income jobs, and most of the women are domestic workers in the city of Pretoria. The nearby car industry employs mostly male labour..The informal township is inhabited by families who moved from the poor rural areas in the former homeland of Bophuthatswana, in an effort to better their standard. Since most of them are poor, the upgrading of Soshanguve TT was limited to state contribution and very little or no contributing from the community. The state’s approach was to provide water and toilets, and then families would build their own shelter. The state policy assumed that once people have access to land then they would build their own units incrementally, and improve the quality of their lives. Given the economic conditions in Soshanguve TT, all households are dependant on state help for provision of services and adequate housing.

The area of Soshanguve TT was created around 1992, when the Independent Development Trust (IDT) began the government programme of site and services, whereby low income families in informal settlements were allocated a serviced sites with title deed; in an effort to upgrade the informal areas. The state consulted the local civic organization in terms of decisions about the levels of services and the choice of the sanitation system to be installed. All the civic leaders in Soshanguve at the time were males, with no technical experience on the functioning of sanitation systems.


The study looks at a sanitation system that was introduced in Soshanguve TT, as an innovative and cost effective way of servicing the low income areas of South Africa. In this community water supply is limited to community stand pipes, which are shared by twelve families. There are no individual water connections per household. After the installation of water pipes and water treatment plant, there were no resources for sewerage reticulation and sewerage treatment plants. The technical solution was therefore a sanitation system that could function without being connected into a water system, but which could be upgraded to a water borne sewerage in the long term, when funds were available.

The schemes are characterized by delivery of services in the form of roads, water and sewerage. Soshanguve TT has gravel roads and the communal water stand pipes that are shared by roughly twelve families. The toilet is an Aqua Privy system. This toilet has been recently introduced in South Africa, to deal with needs of areas, where there are no individual household water connections, and it also needs less water than the conventional water borne sewerage system. The toilet requires water to be poured into the bowl after every use, the effluent flows into a soakaway and the sludge should be emptied periodically. No foreign objects can be introduced into the toilet except the toilet paper, and only clean water can be used to flush away the solids, not water with chemicals or detergents.

The decision on this sanitation system was made on the strength of the technical information available from the project engineers. The male civics organization made all the decision on behalf of the community without consulting the women, the young, the local institutions like churches and schools, as well as the disabled and the blind. The costing was done based on the actual costs of implementing the system. Not much attention was paid to the costs of managing the system, the labour costs of fetching the water from the common stand pipe, the costs to the household of emptying the sludge. It is also important to note that while it is now a requirement that communities be consulted before projects are planned and implemented in their local areas; it was not the case during the apartheid era. In this study the engineering teams held meetings with democratically elected civic leaders. However civic leadership was dominantly male and young, which reflected the most vocal citizens in the community. In effect this exclusion of women proved problematic later.

The technical teams who explained the working of the system were unable to unpack the technical issues to enable the community leaders to understand the implications of the system. Most of the leaders did not know enough about this technology to question its appropriateness. The language was also a major problem, the committee members spoke very little English or Afrikaans, and the technical team did not speak any of the African languages. Most committee members, are not highly educated, and could not understand the technical terms in the pamphlets.

The women were informed by the leaders about their “new flush toilet” who themselves did not have enough knowledge to appropriately transfer the complicated technical information they had received. All of them had only seen the pictures and the demonstration in the factory; none had seen an actual operating system within a community. Most of the questions were raised by the broader community only after they had already moved in and started to use the system. No attempt was made by either the project engineers or the leadership to consult either the social needs groups, or businesses or institutions in the area.

The study looks briefly at the technology and then focuses on the socio economic impacts and gender impacts of the alternative sanitation system. The study also raises environmental questions around applicability of the Aqua Privy system in situation where the water table is high and most of the rainfall is in the form of heavy seasonal showers.


This study of socio economic impacts of alternative sanitation systems on the lives of residents of Soshanguve TT, North of Pretoria, is part of a broader research on the socio economic impacts of alternative sanitation systems in South Africa. The research focuses on the costs, perceptions and attitudes of recipient communities towards alternative sanitation systems. While the study does consider the technology, its efficiency and its focus; it however goes beyond the technological consideration and seeks to understand replicability and desirability of the systems from a gender and developmental perspective.

From a social perspective it is important that alternative sanitation systems be evaluated. In most instances technologies that work in some societies may not necessarily work in others due to the differences in social settings. Technology therefore must respond to cultural and social constraints. For example if the technology will have an impact on the daily activities of the member of household then it is important to examine this. In this particular study it is important that gender impacts be examined, since water provision and cleaning of the home are traditionally responsibilities of the women in the household.

Another objective was to look at the economic impacts of using the alternative sanitation system rather than the conventional water borne sewerage. The objective was to look at both the financial costs and the social costs in order evaluate whether the system is cheaper for the community it serves. On the political front there is a debate on whether provision of these alternative system is sustainable in the long term or not; and whether it is economical to provide systems that need to be upgraded into fully fledged water borne sewerage in the long term.

An environmental objective was to look at the efficiency and reliability of the system for the specific conditions in Soshanguve. The impact of such a system needed to be evaluated before wide spread applications. Even from a health perspective it was important to study the impacts on the health of the community. For example issues such as seepage, spillage and overflow had to be considered.


The gender element of the study has purposely adopted a qualitative research methodology, which focuses on women’s experiences and perceptions of the system. The qualitative approach is recognized in gender literature as a more appropriate methodology for ensuring that women’s perspectives are analyzed and understood (Moser 1993; Larsson 1993; Schlyter 1993). In a situation where individuals in leadership positions are mostly men, and where questionnaires tend to be answered by male heads of household, it becomes critical that qualitative methodology be used to focus on women’s experiences and perceptions. This paper presents the gender research which is a result of extensive workshops, focus groups and individual interviews with the women of Soshanguve TT. More than a hundred women were interviewed during this period.

The general research methodology for the whole study is both quantitative and qualitative surveys. This paper however deals with only the gender elements of the sanitation system, and it therefore deliberately focuses on the qualitative methodology, and no attempt is made to quantify women’s experiences. This paper sets out to analyze gender specific impacts and thus focuses on the in-depth study of women and men in this situation. This paper is a result of several workshops with different groups within the community including women; as well as focus groups with women. The workshops included a general community group; women’s focus group; the blind; a focus group with disabled; a focus group with the community and health workers; and a workshop with businesses and churches (businesses included spaza shops, shebeens and general dealers).

This paper explores women’s experiences and perceptions of the alternative sanitation and its impact on the quality of their lives. Introduction of new technologies seldom takes into account gender impacts or perspectives from both sexes that can potentially enrich developments. The study underlines the need for gender sensitive approaches to planning and the need to include women in community decision making processes.


In the short term all the residents of Soshanguve want is a sanitation system that reinforces their right to privacy and human dignity. In most cultures, making use of ablution facilities is an individual and completely private activity. For most women, the present sanitation system is an intrusion into their most intimate lives. To an average urban dweller going to the toilet hardly constitutes a stressful situation, one goes, flushes the toilet and forgets about the importance of the facility in their lives. Now compare the same scenario with a Soshanguve dweller:-

• First she needs to go to the communal tap down the street to fill the bucket with water

• Then she goes to the toilet

• Then she pours the water into the bowl and flushes the toilet

• If she has young children or visitor then she goes to the common standpipe to refill the water for the next user

• If she has visitors this means a trip to the common standpipe to fill the bucket after every use, after all one cannot expect visitors to be asking for a bucket before using the toilet

• For pregnant women, children and those with stomach ailments, the alternative is to keep a potty, otherwise the process of fetching water from the stand pipe, day and night becomes dangerous and tiresome.


The major issues surrounding the toilet systems can be clustered under the following broad headings:-

. The design and location of the toilets

. The maintenance problems

. The cost implications

. Perceptions around hygiene and health


For most women, consultation in the planning and design of their environment remains an unfulfilled dream. While the first group of women who moved from Winterveld informal settlement to Soshanguve TT knew that their ‘flush’ toilets were going to need water from the common standpipe, they did not realize the implications of this information with regard to their time and family responsibilities. What struck them as odd was the location of most of the toilets in such a way that they face the street. For the women in the workshop the location and orientation of the toilets is considered unsafe and exposed. Toilets are usually private places, located away from the main dwelling, and affording the family a secluded area for ablutions. In Soshanguve the toilets face the public space, for some households it is impossible to go to the toilet without passerbys or neighbours observing you.

The question of safety and security is a concern for most women. The fact that anyone can observe them going to the toilet and can actually accost them disturbs them. At night it is dangerous to use the toilet, especially if the woman still has to go to the stand pipe for water. Potential rapists and robbers are able to watch the toilet and then plan their attacks accordingly, they wait for the women to come to the stand pipe to refill the bucket.

The toilet is designed like a normal flush toilet, which means that one cannot flush sanitary pads down the toilet, however the outside toilet lacks the advantage of an inside flush toilet where one can privately dispose of sanitary pads. In this system the women has to go to the toilet to take off the pad, then she has to come back to the house either to wash it or to burn it. In a culture where menstruation is never mentioned in public or in the company of males, this violation of privacy was felt to be the major indignity. Family members can see her clutching a plastic bag with the sanitary pad, bringing it from the toilet and thus publicising her menstrual cycle. The women believe that menstuation defines their womanhood, and the struggle with the disposal of the pads makes them feel ashamed; and dreadful of a process that is as natural as life.

Soshanguve garbage men tend to scavenge the garbage bins, if they find a sanitary pad in the garbage bin, they belittle the women of the family, as well as spread rumors about the women’s lack of self respect and respect for the men she expects to dispose of her blood. The male garbage collectors have informed the women that the municipality prohibits the disposal of pads in garbage bins. All the women in the workshop have never questioned this information and are quite embarrassed to raise it with the civic organizations and the councillors. There was general agreement from the older women and the men that no ‘decent’ women would leave her blood to be collected by men.

The issue of disposal of sanitary pads is a major problem that is dreaded by the younger women. Some mentioned that in Winterveld, where they originated, sanitary pads could be thrown down the pit latrine and be forgotten.

The size of the toilets is also a major concern for the residents. The toilet structure is made up of four pieces of corrugated iron, and a door. Besides the fact that any woman who is more than sixty kilograms in weight, finds it difficult to close the door, pregnant women almost find it impossible to squeeze into the toilet. For women accompanying their young ones to the toilet, they have no choice but to keep the toilet open while waiting; to the disgust of passerby and neighbours. All residents mentioned that if they had been consulted they may have even paid the difference to allow them a bigger toilet. In most cases there is only one room and a kitchen, a bigger toilet could have afforded a private area for washing. Women were generally more dissatisfied with the toilet since they tend to use it more, sit on it more, or accompany the young. On the other hand men were concerned about the size, but they did mention that when urinating they stand and face away from the door, so for them the problem is minor.


When residents moved into Soshanguve TT they were told what was allowed or not allowed into the toilet. Except for one or two people, there seems to be common understanding of the guidelines for use of the toilet. However all the attendants have experienced the following problems with the toilet:-

• Filling up of the toilet- Although the toilet is supposed to fill up once every two years, all workshop attendants have had to drain their toilets at least every six months. The toilet overflows and black worms come out of the seat when it is ready for draining.

• Draining involves opening up the storage tanks, scooping all the liquids out, digging a hole in your garden and then disposing of the smelly liquids. The smell impacts on all the neighbours so most draining is done at night time. Some families will not dig the hole but throw the liquid on the streets or on other people’s gardens. This causes a lot of tension between neighbours as well as within the household given the undesirability of the tasks. In most households this is a woman’s job, including digging the disposal hole.

• Those who can afford have requested the maintenance truck to come and pump out sludge, but the officials insist that they need at least twenty families to make it economically viable. Since toilets do not fill up on the same day it makes it impossible to use this service.

• When the toilet is full and the worms come out, it is impossible to use the toilet, there is a general concern about the worms infecting children with diseases.

• There is a tendency for some individuals to use other people’s toilets to delay the fill up; or sneaking in to use the toilet while theirs is full. The intruders always leave the toilet dirty because they cannot fetch the water for flushing for fear of discovery.

• The researchers were taken to two different families that were draining their toilets on that particular Sunday. Both families had sent the children away, they felt that the smell was too strong and the contents of the toilet were not meant to be seen by the young.

• In both cases the women were draining the toilets, both of them work during the week, and felt that draining the toilets at night would expose them to danger.


The major costs associated with the toilets are associated with women’s time, hiring a man to dig the drainage hole for women, and the normal costs of toilet paper. The major complaint was that irrespective of the kind of paper one uses, the toilets still fill up fast, especially during the rainy season. The toilet paper costs R1.50 each in the Spaza shops, without giving the benefits it does for normal flush toilets. The design of the toilet forces residents to spend money on toilet paper, but the benefits are outweighed by the flush toilet and the pit latrine. One women stated that the pit latrine was backward and rural, but she could use other paper, and she did not have to take a bucket every time she needed to use the toilet. For women, the time spent fetching water is considerable.

The other cost is that of draining the toilet. One either employs a person to drain and dispose or just to dig a hole. The costs are considered high, so some families employ a digger and then drain themselves. Some women felt that draining was a private business which is better left to the family. For the blind and the disabled , the cost could not be avoided. For both the blind and the disabled there was the added costs of employing children to fetch water from the common standpipe to enable them to use the toilet. One disabled man who lives alone waits outside to call on any passerby to fetch him water when the kids run away from him.


In general all residents at the workshops perceived the toilets to be unhygienic, dehumanizing and unnatural. One old men stated that he never thought he would leave to see the day when he has to fetch water from the tap like a child, and almost make an announcement about his intended use of the toilet. (Most men do not bring water to flush after urinating). Women associated a lot of their vaginal infections to the unclean toilets, and the ever existing smell. The nursing sisters at the workshop confirmed this view, however we could not interview the two local doctors to confirm the nurses statements.

Some parents do not allow the young to use the toilet, but kept a potty for them to use and then flush the contents down the toilet. It is difficult to tell when the toilet is about to fill except when the worms come out, the fear is therefore that the kids may sit on top of a full toilet. Residents perceived themselves to be worse off than either rural or urban folks. Rural people do not have to sort their own sewerage into liquids and solids for disposal, all they need to do with the pit latrine is to deodorize it. Urban communities just flush and walk away.


All the institutions and businesses had serious problems with the system. In the schools, the toilets blocked and overflowed because of the high demand from the children. The sewerage seeped out of the digester into the area surrounding the toilets, with the result that worms ad flies started breeding. The whole area became a health hazards for the kids and the toilets had to be permanently closed. From the school’s perspective, it was impossible to monitor the use of the toilet, specifically around the “flushing “ of the toilet. Due to the ages of the children in the lower grades, it was impossible to insist that they fetch the water themselves. The school could not employ labour to attend to the toilets, so they decided to close the system since it was becoming a health hazard.

This experience was shared by the small business sector and the churches.


From the women and special needs group the system does not improve the quality of their lives, and for them it is critical that it be reviewed. In the case of Soshanguve this study which mostly occurred in 1995 to 1997, resulted in authorities being aware of the problems with the result that the area has been prioritized for upgrading. The connection of sewerage pipes has already started. The question of the possible success of the system in other areas has therefore become important. The system is clearly not suitable for institutional purposes as already discussed above. For the system to work it is important that the following issues be attended to:-

i. Involvement of users in the decision making and planning, this should include the people who will maintain the system.

ii. Actual costing of the system both in terms of social costs and financial costs. In essence the costing must look at the short and the medium term. In the Soshanguve case it has become a very expensive exercise to immediately spend extra funds to upgrade the failing system.

iii. Consideration of size of family and the actual use of the system, from a cultural and hygienic perspective.

iv. Social acceptance of the system.


For Soshanguve residents, lots of time is spent on activities associated with using the toilet, maintaining the system or attending to its problems. They would rather pay an extra amount to get the toilets upgraded. For women though an undesirable responsibility is added. The married women and the middle aged women have become the professional drainers of toilets. They feel that they cannot allow their children or their unmarried daughters to do such a task. Some stated that no man would marry a women who has been an official toilet drainer for her family, surely that women would have isinyama ( undesirable to the opposite sex). For these women consultation in the design and introduction of a new technology would have enabled them to make an informed decision. At the moment they feel cheated, they believe they thought they were improving their lives by choosing such a system, but instead it has reduced them to sewerage drainers.

Introduction and practice of gender sensitive planning is critical to the creation of sustainable human settlements. The Soshanguve case study is a clear illustration of how consultation can exclude women and thus have results that are detrimental to women’s well being. The challenge is for planners and other project implementors to ensure that women are part of the community structures they consult with. In the Soshanguve case both men and women agreed that IDT did consult with the civics and other community structures. The male leadership however was unaware of the gender impacts of the sanitation system. Some civic members who were consulted heard about the women’s problems for the first time during these workshops.

The study confirms previous findings by most gender researchers that male and female perceptions differ, and that their experiences of similar events may also differ. The negative impacts of this system are experienced more strongly by women. This may be resulting from the fact that most of the activities associated with the system fall within the women’s domain. In a situation where a disgusting chore have to be performed, then the power dynamics within a household come to play. The most powerful members of the family are not required to perform the task. In most cases the husbands and the mother in laws are able to use their power within the household to dictate that the wife or the daughter in law performs the task. The reverse is not true, in fact there are women who have been assaulted by their husbands when they refused to drain the toilet.

Women’s nurturing responsibilities makes it impossible for them to ignore an overflowing toilet. In most cases they feel that they have a responsibility to keep their families safe and clean. Some women cannot stand the disintegration of their environment, without acting. This happens at the family level and also at the community level. The churches rely on women to come and help with the problem. It is therefore critical that planning takes into account women’s nurturing, productive and community building responsibilities when planning human settlements and facilities. The women in this community are further burdened by the problems associated with the lavatories in their performance of their productive, reproductive and community building activities. Without an active recognition of the triple roles of women in our approach to planning, women will continue to be delegated to the level of servitude and subservience; where they feel worthless and powerless. There are cases in Soshanguve where women felt that the task would bring stigma to their husbands and their children, so it was better that they do it themselves as they are already old.


Moser Caroline, 1993, ‘Gender Planning and Development’ Theory, Practice & Training. Routledge, London and New York.

Dandekar Hemalata (editor), 1992, ‘Shelter, Women and Development’ First and Third World Perspectives, Proceedings of International conference, College of architecture, University Of Michigan, George Wahr Publishing Co. Ann Arbor.

Sithole-Fundire, Zhou, Larsson, Schlyter (editors) 1993, ‘Gender Research on Urbanization, Planning, Housing and Everyday Life’, (Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network).

Schlyter Ann, 1993, ‘Approaches to Women and Housing in Development Policy’ in Gender Research on Urbanization, Planning and Everyday Life, (Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network).

Larsson Anita, 1993, ‘Theoretical and Methodological Considerations’, in Gender Research on Urbanization, Planning and Everyday Life, (Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network).

Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, 1996, ‘National Sanitation Policy White Paper’, prepared by the National Sanitation Task team, (Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, South Africa).

The name SOSHANGUVE is derived from the abbreviations of the major tribal groups in the area namely; Sotho, Shangaan, Nguni, Venda; so the first stem of each language was taken to form one name for the township.

** Nonhlanhla Mjoli-Mncube, Executive Director, NURCHA, 710 Hallmark Towers, 54 Siemert Road, New Doornfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2096. Phone (01127) 11- 402 4780; Fax (01127) 11- 402 6602; E-Mail

Acknowledgments : The qualitative research was conducted in partnership with Uhuru Madida, a civil engineer with water and sanitation background.

The former government of South Africa created black homelands, in an attempt to control black mobility. These homelands were considered independent, and they effectively deprived a huge number of South African citizens of their access to the broader South Africa. Bophuthatswana was one of these homelands which was created exclusively for the Tswana speaking population group.

Spaza shops are very small family owned businesses usually selling very few necessities like bread, soap, candles etc. They are a way for poor families to make money. Most of them are run by former street hawkers who have grown. Shebeens are the township alternative for a tavern. When laws prohibited blacks from sitting and drinking in taverns; black businesses women ran home businesses that sold liquor and food. Most shebeens are also used by social clubs for functions.