‘The Struggle To Be Ordinary’ Shows Intersection Of Gender, Disability And Basic Services In Informal Settlements

People with disabilities have difficulty in accessing fundamental rights in South Africa, and are excluded from the mainstream of society. It’s even worse for women living with disabilities in informal settlements. This is evident in the short documentary on sanitation for women with disabilities living in informal settlements, The Struggle to be Ordinary, released by Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI), in partnership with the South African Cities Network and the National Upgrading Support Programme. The documentary highlights the intersection of gender, disability and basic services in informal settlements in South Africa.

SERI launched the documentary accompanied with research at Constitution Hill on August 16, during Women’s Month. The documentary, produced with Twospinningwheels Productions and Pegasys Institute, featured women with disabilities in the Slovo Park informal settlement, south of Johannesburg. One of the women featured in the documentary is Lydia Lenyatsa.

Meet Lydia Lenyatsa: a woman with disabilities living in Slovo Park

Lenyatsa is a mother of three who has lived in Slovo Park for 20 years. Due to her scoliosis and short structure, Lenyatsa relies on crutches to move around. A problem with her lungs also means she relies on an oxygen mask to aid her breathing. Lenyatsa shares a standpipe and pit latrine toilet with other families in her community. When she needs to use the toilet, which is outside of her home, Lenyatsa has to ask someone to accompany her. It is also unsafe for her and her children to use at night because the pit latrine is alongside a road. If no one is around to accompany Lenyatsa to the toilet, she often does not use it at all.

Lydia Lenyatsa

“One thing that will change my life is if I see Slovo Park improving to upgrade more, in flushing toilets which is inside the house, which is more comfortable to use, and inside taps in the house also… And make life easier for us people with disabilities,” Lenyatsa says in the documentary. 

Informal settlements: profound inequalities in access to basic services 

One in five households in metropolitan areas live in informal housing, according to Stats SA’s Community Survey (2016). 68% of households living in informal settlements share toilets. A further 13.4% of households headed by persons with disabilities had no access to piped water, compared with 8.2% of households headed by persons without disabilities. About 45.2% of households headed by persons with disabilities had access to a flush toilet while 37.1% used pit toilets.

Barriers to accessing safe water and sanitation severely impacts the access of other human rights such as health, dignity and education, according to the South African Human Rights Council. Women, girls and people with disabilities are disproportionately affected. 

Women living with disabilities in South Africa are socially isolated 

Besides suffering the same discrimination as women who are able-bodied, women with disabilities face additional discrimination. The Integrated National Disability Strategy White Paper (1997) shows that women with disabilities are more likely to be poor or destitute; malnourished; illiterate, and have a lesser chance of founding a family. Women who bear children with disabilities sometimes face rejection and scorn. These women, especially in impoverished areas, are excluded from community activities because of the added care needed by, and lack of facilities for their children with disabilities. Many care-givers of children with disabilities are grandmothers, which increases the disadvantaged circumstances of elderly women in South Africa. 

There is also a strong correlation between disability and poverty: poverty increases people’s vulnerability to disability and disability reinforces and deepens poverty.

Government efforts have failed those living with disabilities in informal settlements

The rights of people with disabilities are protected by the South African Constitution. It provides, “Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law. Equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms.” 

However, government efforts have failed to respond to the needs of people with disabilities. People living with disabilities continue to face challenges to accessing sanitation in informal settlements. Challenges include relying on shared toilets and chemical latrines, crawling to inaccessible facilities, inaccessible hand-washing facilities, using alternatives to avoid travelling to distant sanitation facilities during unsafe hours, and physical violence while trying to access outside facilities.

This shouldn’t be happening. Under the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme (UISP), municipalities are legally obligated to upgrade informal settlements. Municipalities should engage people with disabilities in these settlements about the tenure rights and services provided through upgrades. 

Besides this, sanitation facilities in informal settlements must meet the National Norms and Standards for Domestic Water and Sanitation Services. Facilities must also be easily accessible, convenient, and comfortable for men, women, the elderly, and people living with disabilities. Requirements for privacy and security, space for wheelchairs, level or ramped access, and support structures such as a handrail and a toilet seat are part of the norms and standards.

There is a dire need for these standards to be met to address the needs of the disabled, specifically women and girls.

Watch the documentary below.

Pictures by Twospinningwheels