LONDON, April 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Investing in public toilets could reduce the number of sexual assaults in South African townships by almost a third and lower the economic cost of the crime on society, public health experts said on Wednesday.
Many women in South Africa must walk long distances from their homes to public toilets, leaving them vulnerable to sexual assault, according to a study by researchers at the Yale School of Public Health and School of Management.
Scores of often violent crimes including rape, robberies and murder are recorded every day in South Africa, earning it a place among the most violent countries in the world outside a war zone.
In 2011/2012, South Africa had the highest number of reported rapes per head of population of any Interpol member country, with more than 64,500 reported.
The study said between 2003 and 2012, an average of 635 sexual assaults were reported each year on women travelling to and from toilets in Khayelitsha, an urban township in Cape Town.
Doubling the number of public toilets in the area to 11,300 would reduce sexual assaults by nearly 30 percent and lower the cost to society, which includes medical and legal expenses and loss of earnings, to $35 million from $40 million, it found.
International charity WaterAid said the study highlighted the "truly shocking scale" of sexual violence against women seeking a safe place to relieve themselves.
"It is important to remember that women living in these areas may feel unsafe every single time they need to go to the toilet," said WaterAid programme manager Louisa Gosling. "This high level of fear has a huge impact on women's daily lives.
Decision makers should not only invest in more toilets, but ensure they are designed and managed in a way that promotes dignity, safety and accessibility, Gosling added.
The study's authors said the cost of installing and maintaining more toilets would be offset by the reduced cost of the crime on society.
There are also many health benefits of improving sanitation in poor urban areas, such as reducing the likelihood of becoming infected with water-borne diseases, the study found.
The link between inadequate sanitation and sexual violence has previously been documented in cities in Kenya and India and other makeshift urban settlements in the developing world, including refugee and disaster-relief camps, researchers said. (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Katie Nguyen)
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