South Africa – The Department of Education’s (DBE) draft guidelines which included unisex toilets was met with unhappiness from many parents. In less than 24 hours, a petition opposing it had garnered 50 000 signatures.
Many are concerned about how the safety of children will be impacted if unisex bathrooms are placed in schools. While there is outrage, Dr Glodean Thani, Education policy expert, believes the DBE is acting in the best interests of learners. These policies are to ensure LGBTQI+ learners feel safe and secure in schools.
“If a learner who’s LGBTQI+ is in the classroom, do they recognise the space as affirming for them and are they welcomed in that space? Is their surroundings reflective of their identity? So, based on the constitution that is what the department would want to do to ensure that this learner is comfortable and is welcomed and does not feel like an outsider. Which often happens in the schooling system. This would also manifest itself in that the bathrooms would be marked to allow them to also use the bathroom in a dignified way. To wear a uniform that they feel best describes their gender identity and also to be able to see themselves in comprehensive sexuality education content that allows them to learn to be safe in their sexual practice when they get to that age and to be able to then make the right choices.”
Unisex guidelines must not come at the risk of infringing other student’s rights
There have been a number of issues raised in regards to these guidelines. Besides the concerns of safety, many feel the department should be focusing on the basics first before pursuing these objectives. These matters must be addressed first before unisex toilets are even talked about, said Ahmed Munzoor Shaik Emam, National Freedom Party (NFP).
“When you talk about constitutional rights, we should be talking about the constitutional rights of everybody. Now because somebody chooses to be a member of the LGBTQI+ community, what you are now going to do is infringe on to the constitutional rights of everybody else and I don’t think that is acceptable. If you look at what has happened in the schools in the last year alone, 91 000 children gave birth to children … We are grappling with gender-based violence … We know that there’s been sexual abuse, assault and rape in schools. We also know that when you want to talk about toilets many schools particularly in rural areas continue today to have pit latrines where some of our children have even succumbed or died as a result of that.”
These issues should be the priority. The failing infrastructure in schools, the lack of quality education which has led to a 60% drop out rate in TVET colleges should be focused on, said Emam. The rights of the LGBTIQ+ should be respected but it must not come at the cost of infringing on the rights of other students.
However, for Thani, the issues of infrastructure, sexual violence and teenage pregnancies are separate issues and cannot be bunched in with the rights of LGBTQI+ learners.
“All learners are precious to us. These are our children, and these are members of our society who we want to also be able to showcase that they’ve gone through the education system and have benefited from it. I understand our society is very angry and they are hurt at the fact that it seems that there isn’t enough service delivery, but these are different issues. Learner pregnancy is a different issue that needs to be tackled at the right level. Sexual violence is a serious issue that needs to be tackled at a different level but this is an issue of human rights that we cannot ignore because other issues also persist at the same time.”
Schools are for the public which is why the public should decide on unisex guidelines
The proposal was first sent out to the public domain by the Freedom Front Plus (FF+). The information received, according to Dr Wynand Boschoff, which is still unconfirmed, was that the proposal would be implemented by January 2023. It is because of this; they felt the public needed to be alerted about these proposed changes.
“You have this document of guidelines of which nobody knows but it has to be implemented within a month or two. So, I used the opportunity of a member statement in Parliament to refer to this document and to say okay what are we working with. Is this going to happen or what is it? The deputy had an opportunity to respond but she didn’t. We assumed this document is real and we made a media statement putting it out. I even sent photographs of the whole 23-page document to quite a number of journalists and then the whole issue got a life of its own. That is exactly what we wanted because schools are the property of communities. We have a public school system, not a state school system and it is the communities who have to decide about priorities about how we are going to deal with certain things.”
How the unisex study was funded and the outcome
The public uses the school as an instrument for education. Therefore, the ethos should be determined by the parents, said Boschoff. Taking something that is working in first world countries and trying to use it is a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, Boschoff wants to know how educating preschoolers on these topics can be educational.
“We have schools where teachers do not keep proper hours. There is a lot of absenteeism at schools from teachers … They got about more than R30 million from the Human Rights Commission but also significant portions of that from international agencies in Europe. What have they done with R30 million? We have seen a 23-page document and we have seen some electronic learning material. Teacher’s guide for preschool children. Alerting preschool children that you may or may not be the gender that was assigned by your parents, is that educational? Is that a good idea? A teacher may not say boys and girls let’s go do this because that’s infringing on their rights. I really do not think it’s infringing on their rights. That’s why it should be discussed but I think the department didn’t want it to be discussed. I think they wanted to keep it under a cloak and then surprise us with the done deal and that is how the R30 million has already been spent.”
Being forced to accept an ideology
Boschoff is not the only one who believes these new guidelines are being forced onto the schooling system. Abdullah Sujee, Deputy Principal of Al Falaah College, is of the same opinion. These guidelines will not only challenge what is being taught in schools but also the basic concept of what marriage and family is. Young children are just beginning to learn how to read and write and they do not need this to be added onto them, said Sujee.
“A child in preschool has to be taught how to read and write to begin with. Now you’re putting something so difficult on the child to determine his or her sexuality and at that time the child cannot write his own name. Why confuse a child at that point? It’s also very pressing that the infrastructure of schools are failing particularly in the state schools. In the schools we are troubled now. We have to deal with the right things in the right way and when we do that, yes, we will be able to handle this LGBTQI+ in a very different way because we cannot wish it away … It seems to me then this whole thing is being shoved down rather than given a platform or an open discussion. What is good for the goose must be good for the gander.”
Bullying is not something new
Thani expressed the LGBTQI+ community needed to feel safe in their environments. She believes these guidelines will help bring an end to bullying. However, bullying is not something new or something that is happening because of this movement. Furthermore, there are no statistics to indicate that LGBTQI+ students are the only ones being bullied.
“Bullying is not a phenomenon only because of this movement that has suddenly merged upon the global society. Bullying has been in our school for a long time and there’s no statistics to say that only the members of the LGBTQI+ community were bullied or are being bullied … We are now being conditioned to accept a certain ideology on what they think is the norm of society. So, the majority of us who forever have been living as male and female suddenly feel as if we are the problem.”
A small group with a huge amount of power
The LGBTQI+ community is a minority in the world. Even though they are a minority, it is amazing to see what kind of power they hold, said Dr Faisal Suliman, South African Muslim Network (SAMNET). They are so small, yet they have lobbied the government to look into this matter over other serious priorities.
“A lobbying group has lobbied the Department of Health, has either lobbied the Minister of Education, whoever it is to come up with something that the department has maybe now rejected but even to get this idea in a country where we don’t have teachers and computers. Someone’s lobbying power is so strong, to bypass so many other priorities we have for schools. In an age where we have children dying of pit latrines, we’re talking about building unisex toilets. It shows the lobbying power. How such a small group is able to effectively lobby the states.”
What we also have to think about is the limited amount of resources that South Africa has. These resources can be allocated to help the minority while the majority are struggling, explained Suliman.
“In South Africa I don’t think we’re running into hundreds of thousands of students that may have the issue, it cannot take precedence over pit latrines and computers in schools and the welfare of others. Young girls, the sound of a sanitary pad opening up, just that embarrassment of having to go to a toilet and rip off the cover of a sanitary pad and the sound of that. You want privacy around a simple thing like that … We’re not even touching the whole issue of sexual harassment, embarrassment, privacy all of that. Just on the simple things of being in a private space where you are comfortable.”
Model C schools that have the resources for it can build it but the government cannot be allocating resources to this while so many are suffering from lacking the basics.
Disappointment with how the department has handled this manner
Mahlomola Kekana, National Association of Parents in School Governance, expressed his disappointment with how the policy was formulated. The South African Schools act of 1996 as amended clear states policy formulation is the responsibility of parents. However, the department decided to neglect this as well as neglect the priorities.
“Presently we don’t even have adequate schools. They do not worry about children who get involved in road accidents. We’ve seen children dying, being knocked by a scholar transport. Children have to be transported on public roads to schools. They can’t build schools near their homes. Where is the money going to come from that will develop unisex toilets? We don’t even have running water in our schools. We still in South Africa have a situation where we have the haves and the have-nots. We still need to redress the imbalances of the past. Infrastructure development is one of the critical areas. We can’t even get these children to play sports.”
Due to these issues and so many other issues, Kekana is adamant this policy needs to be outright rejected and the government must focus on these other pertinent issues. While they are not against these groups, this policy is diverting attention from the real problems, said Kekana.
“We have a situation here where we are diverting instead of addressing fundamental issues. We’re not anti these groups but we still have to educate our communities on quite a number of issues. We have a situation where we still have rape in this country. We still have gender-based violence. We still have all forms of abuse against women and children. So I want to say it is still premature in South Africa to even have this discussion.”
What the government should be focusing on as well is a social media policy. Children are exposed to various things online and now that schools have Wi-Fi, there needs to be something in place to limit what children can be exposed to, said Kekana.
“Our children are exposed to social media. They are exposed to pornographic material. Things children are not supposed to be exposed to and they are exposed in our schools. We have free Wi-Fi for these children. Have we considered the issues that these children are exposed to explicit sex and other things?”
Educators have separate toilet facilities for themselves. They do not know what is happening in the toilets between students. Kekana expressed his thanks to neighbourhood watches who assist in providing security to schools but they cannot be monitoring toilets and making sure nothing is going on.
Schools are under resourced, and this should be tackled first
South Africa is a unique country with its own unique challenges. With this in mind it baffles Adv. Shameemah Salie, Al Jamaah Political Party, how South Africa constantly wants to adopt policies of other countries. Public participation “is a joke in this country” and it only happens so the government can say they consulted with the public. The matter of sex education being introduced into the curriculum was also up for public participation but it still was introduced.
“We are still fighting the battle of the implementation of sex education in our schools. It is being sneaked in the curriculum of our children. They are attempting to normalise LGBTQ in up within our young children at this point already and many a parent doesn’t even realise that this is currently happening. We’re talking about access to unisex toilets because that is what it comes down to. That is what they want yet our Department of Education, at this point, is unable to provide basic access to education to our learners in South Africa. We are currently sitting in a situation where the infrastructure is so poor that there are not enough schools for students. Many students have not even been placed in a school yet the responsibility of the Department of Education is to provide our kids with an education. Why are they focusing on LGBTQI? Why are they focusing on sexualising our children? Why are not they’re not teaching our children the education that they are supposed to be provided? The education department is completely lacking.”
Teachers are battling to educate students because schools are so under-resourced and overcrowded. They are not able to teach because they have to be police in the school. The law states that we need to consider what is in the best interest for minor children and this is something Salie believes the department has not done.
“Have we consulted with our young children and on their feelings and their opinions on having to be subjected to a toilet which is unisex? How many of us has taken the time to ask our children as well what is their opinion and their feelings about that type of situation? Now as the Al Jamaah party we oppose any move by the Department of Basic Education to turn bathrooms of schools into unisex and to remove the pronouns indicating gender of persons. We are supporting the outcry from civil society and the public who are rejecting the department’s proposals … We will request that these individuals coming up with these decisions need to be redeployed.”
Young children are not ready to absorb this type of information
From the moment the proposal was seen in the public domain, there was a huge outcry from parents. Especially those with young kids. A young child’s mind is susceptible to many things. Children who are young cannot absorb such information and it would be detrimental to them if they now had to learn such things, explained Salie.
“We have a responsibility to protect the young minds of our children. There was also a note made and it was quite interesting that our children, especially our younger children, their minds are not ready to absorb this type of information at this stage. Further, with regard to our children, just a discussion with my son who is 12 years old, the child felt completely uncomfortable. The fact is that they identify that males and females differ. Our body parts differ. Our needs, when we go to the bathroom differ. It is embarrassing for a young person to go to a bathroom and to utilise sanitary pads or do what they need to do in their space for their relief. When they go to a bathroom, all of these need to be considered. It’s not being accounted for. It’s not been taken into consideration.”
Peer pressure and overloading teachers
Teachers are already overworked at school. They have to do far more than their job requires them to do. Besides providing an education to the students, they must also keep them in line and stop bullying. Adding this to their workload will bode well, said Neil De Beer, United Independent Movement (UIM).
“We are now going to load the teacher who already has to feel violence. Who already has to fight discipline, already has to create manners because they’ve lost it at the majority of homes, he’s got to fight bullying, he’s got to also now resist peer pressure. We’re asking a simple teacher that needs to teach your child and mine what is one plus one, we now ask him to enter another scenario, which is not in my opinion the teacher’s responsibility … Currently today it’s not a matter of prejudice whatsoever … The protection of a child’s right of defence cannot be guaranteed in no way at school level when we cannot even stop bullying, when we can’t even stop violence and we can’t stop ill-discipline in a normal school day.”
South Africa’s schools are under-resourced and teachers are already under a lot of pressure. Furthermore, many schools are under-funded and have poor infrastructure. The resources currently available need to be used to eradicate pit latrines and better fund schools. Parents, political parties, activists and school governing bodies are all under one roof of thinking. Before South Africa thinks about unisex toilets, the basics must get done right.