By Kalani Kumarasinghe
Colombo, November 20 (Daily Mirror): Over the past weeks, women’s rights were heavily debated as front-runners of the Sri Lankan presidential campaigns pursued the female vote like never before. Sri Lanka had its Presidential election on November 16.
The promises the candidates made included free childcare. The ruling party candidate Sajith Premadasa drew much attention with his promise to give sanitary pads for women.
Elections have come and gone, but one important issue needs to be discussed. On average a woman has her menstrual period from three to seven days. The average woman menstruates from age 13 until age 51, adding up to a total of some 450 of period cycles for roughly 38 years.
This amounts to 2,280 days of menstrual periods. That’s nearly six and a half years of a woman’s life. Thus, she has to have a sanitary pad with her at all times. The physical discomfort and cramps can be the worst part of the entire experience, but in most countries, it’s not the only one.
In Sri Lanka a pack of 10 sanitary napkins can cost from Rs. 120 to Rs. 560. If an average woman experiences a 5-day period cycle per month, that can add up to a yearly cost of Rs. 1440 to Rs. 6720, and that too if a woman only requires a single pack.
Many women would however agree that this is not often the case. Although the prices may seem fairly affordable, women’s and children’s sanitary products in Sri Lanka, like in many other countries, are subjected to taxation. But in Sri Lanka, the problem is particularly acute because sanitary products are heavily taxed.
Until last year, the taxation on imported sanitary pads, tagged under luxury goods, was more than 100 percent. Let’s look at the breakdown.
52% of Sri Lanka’s population is female, with approximately 4.2 million menstruating women. Menstruation is a biological process that is not optional. Many activists believe that levying taxes on sanitary pads which is also a health requirement is simply unjust.
The opposing argument however is that sanitary products are not optional, yet cannot be made tax free as there are many diverse brands for sanitary products and their variants, and some of them are marketed by multinationals. The question remains, as to whether it is fair to tax a woman’s physiology?
Anuki Premachandra, Communications Manager of Advocata Institute said that policy reforms are needed to effectively tackle the issue of discrimination.
“Being a Sri Lankan woman is difficult. We battle gender and cultural norms every day and now we have to fight for something beyond our control. It is unfortunate that in a country with 52% women, we have a tax as high as 62% on a product that we have no choice, but to purchase. This is not just an issue of affordability. It is an issue of respect, and of discrimination,” she said.
Advocata, an independent policy think tank based in Colombo, conducting research on the topic has suggested policy reforms which include the removal of several taxes. The think tank encourages the following reforms:
- The Ministry of Finance should remove PAL (7.5%) and General Duty (30%) components from the current taxation structure pertaining to essential menstrual hygiene products in Sri Lanka, bringing the total tax levied on these products down to 18.7% (VAT 15% + NBT 2%)
- The Minister of Finance, in conjunction with the Minister of Health, should declare the reduction in taxes through an extraordinary gazette
Periods can get political
It’s not just in Sri Lanka that women’s menstruation is a political issue. While advocates worldwide are pushing for recognition of a woman’s right to manage her periods, with affordable healthcare options, the concept of ‘menstrual equity’ has become a point of debate. The concept is focused on increasing the availability and affordability of menstrual hygiene products for individuals with limited access and also to raise awareness about reproductive health.
It also aims to promote policies to provide menstrual products in schools, prisons and in some countries even in law-making bodies.
In the United Kingdom, MP Danielle Rowley shocked the House of Commons by announcing she was on her period while calling on ministers to help women who are trapped in “period poverty”. A New York Congressman who purchased sanitary products for his staffers meanwhile was embroiled in a debate when he was informed that he was not allowed to allocate funds for women’s hygiene products.
These incidents highlighted a very real issue, period poverty can be an actual problem, even in developed nations such as the UK or the US.
But the most successful political story comes from our neighbour India, where a controversial 12% tax on feminine hygiene products, was slashed, a victory hailed by activists who lobbied for the cause for over a year.
It’s not just the tax
In South Asia, menstruation can come with a host of myths and beliefs. While the discourse on menstruation is usually shrouded in secrecy, in Sri Lanka, it’s yet another curiosity. It is common for periods to come with its own set of issues, including religious places which prohibit entry to menstruating women.
Some myths involving menstruation can also be unhealthy as they promote unhygienic practices. However, in the same country, it is common practice for a family to celebrate and host a meal for family and friends, when a girl attains age or experiences her first menstruation cycle.
Some countries have made bold, positive moves to help bring the menstruation discussion to the center stage. Kenya and Uganda abolished sales tax on menstrual hygiene products, while Zimbabwe subsidizes local manufacturers. The Kenyan government also provides funding for pads in schools.
In 2016 Sri Lanka’s Women and Child Affairs Minister attempted to tackle the controversial issue by introducing a menstrual leave system, where working women would be allowed to request a leave of absence per month, if suffering from severe discomfort owing to menstruation.
Minister Chandrani Bandaranayake attempted to model the system after one practiced in China.
Some intriguing issues about menstruation
We asked over 170 women about the use of sanitary products. The majority of women who took the survey were between the ages of 19 to 30 years, living in urban and suburban areas. 79% of the women said they were uncomfortable discussing menstruation or menstrual health in public. A majority highlighted that imported sanitary products, which they preferred to use over local products, were expensive.