Johannesburg – The possibility of school children sharing toilets continues to divide, as some fear these will become the hunting grounds of sexual predators while others counter that it will offer great inclusivity to LGBTQI learners.
Yesterday afternoon, an online petition calling for no-unisex toilets in SA schools sped towards 90 000 signatures as the Department of Basic Education (DBE) continued to call the action silly and premature. It said the proposal was still in its early stages and not yet open for public comment.
Elijah Mhlanga the DBE spokesperson also stressed that the proposal had not yet been tabled.
"First you need to have put it forward before you can withdraw it. This narrative boggles the mind in terms of the logical sequencing of events. The petition is premature, ill-advised, uninformed and silly," he said.
In support of the DBE, the Civil Society Members of the Basic Education Social Inclusion Education Working Group (SIiEWG) labelled the uproar as “disinformed panic about unisex toilets in SA schools”.
SiiEWG points out that the uproar relates to a single section of DBE’s draft guidelines for the socio-educational inclusion of Diverse Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Expression, and Sex Characteristics in Schools (the Guidelines). The section in question is 7.12, on Bathrooms and Change Facilities.
The guidelines were developed to assist in providing “safe, equitable and socially just learning environments for all learners regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression and sex characteristics”.
In a statement, SiiEWG stressed that the Guidelines categorically did not direct schools to replace all single sex bathrooms and change facilities with “unisex” ones. They encourage schools to explore the possibility of making gender-neutral facilities available to gender non-conforming learners.
“We strongly encourage members of the public to apply their own minds to the document. (They must) not to be misled by deliberate campaigns of disinformation, which exploit parents’ fears and manufacture panic with patently false claims about what the guidelines are, and what they seek to achieve.
“This is not inadvertent ‘misinformation’, but the deliberate spreading of false information. It not only ignores, but makes a mockery of the lived experiences of LGBTIQ learners.
“We urge the public support the rights of all learners to dignity, safety, and bodily autonomy regardless of their gender identity, sexual characteristics, or sexuality” the statement read.
Other civic and child advocacy groups are also supportive of the idea.
Director of The Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children, Shaheda Omar, believes that any decision made by schools on matters relating to LGTBQI pupils should be made in the best interest of all children.
Omar explained that it was important to recognise the choice of a child.
“Schools must always look at the best interest of a child and whether they feel safe and secure and if their constitutional rights are being adhered to,” she told The Saturday Star.
Omar said that the right to choose all facilities need to provided to children and that their sexual orientations should be accommodated.
“Everyone has the right to choose and this includes children.”
Omar admitted that this was a sensitive topic and required vast communication and consultation, which should also include the views of pupils.
She is also cognisant of criticism of gender neutral toilets invading the privacy of young girls.
“It will be an issue of invasion if pupils are not given a choice and if decisions are not made with their best interests,” she said.
Omar added that the possible inclusion of gender neutral toilets was also bigger than just the schooling community.
“This needs to be addressed not just on a school level, but it also requires broader dialogues that are multi-faceted, multi-layered and involves parents and society as a whole.”
She added that: “Whatever choices are made when it comes to youngsters should factor in their safety and security and must prevent secondary victimisation and trauma.”
Luke Lamprecht, head of advocacy for Women and Men Against Child Abuse, also applauded the DBE efforts to include gender-neutral toilets in Gauteng schools.
However, he warned that implementation was very important.
“I think it's a good idea. It shows the department's intent to embrace inclusivity in schools,” said Lamprecht.
“However it is increasingly important that the government implement this policy well so that there are guidelines etc.”
“They cannot just say they are creating gender-neutral toilets just to be woke. There needs to be proper implementation of this should it go ahead in various schools.”
“Having gender-neutral toilets also increases the risks of certain things. Most notably it provides another venue for teenagers to engage in sexual activity. So there has to be proper implementation and strict guidelines in order for it to work well in schools.”
However, others feel such gender neutral spaces would be abused.
The FF-Plus’s advocate Anton Alberts said the move would fundamentally undermine women's rights to allow biological males into their private spaces.
“It is open to abuse and has been proven to be so. Given the rising incidence of violence, especially sexual violence, against women and children, this arrangement is at best foolish and at worst the creation of a predatory environment against minor women that will also have huge legal liability issues for education departments, schools and SGBs,” he said.
Alberts added that while it worked in some countries, there were many instances in the US that indicated that this new system of personal sanitation was being abused by predators.
“It should not be imposed on minors at all. They cannot defend themselves like adults as they do not have the same legal agency. Also, in high schools you are dealing with teenagers who are vulnerable in terms of establishing their identity as they grow towards adulthood and especially boys who are becoming sexually aware,” he concluded.