Taxing feminine physiology | Sunday Observer

Taxing feminine physiology

10 March, 2019

Samanthi (not her real name), in her late teens, from Elapatha, Ratnapura, belongs to a family with mountains of financial burdens. Her parents are day labourers earning a meagre salary which makes even getting basic provisions a battle. In that situation, buying sanitary towels all the time is not something they can even think of.

“My sisters and I use pieces of cloth, cut and folded, as sanitary napkins. We sometimes buy pads from the shops but my parents can’t afford them all the time. Cloths are uncomfortable but you get used to them. The worst times are rainy days. It takes time to dry the cloths,” said Samanthi.

“It’s not the best to wear under white uniforms too,” she added.

Tax against biology?

“A toilet for every home” is a Rs. 4 billion project the government has planned to implement this year with the aim of upgrading the sanitation level in the country, said Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera during his Budget speech last week. While the Government hopes to spend Rs. 4 billion on building toilets, many civil society activists and leaders wished something else, in terms of the sanitation of the people; the tax removal on sanitary pads.

Sri Lanka boasts of a women dominated population with 52 per cent of the population being women. In other words, of 20 million people, 10.5 million are women. But until September 2018, there was a sky high taxation (101.2%) on sanitary napkins which is not an optional product but a necessity for girls and women.

Before September 2018, the tax breakdown was reported as General Duty (30%) + VAT (15%) + PAL (7.5%) + NBT (2%) and CESS (30% or Rs.300/kg). Later the Finance Minister removed the CESS on sanitary pads which lowered the total tax limit up to 62.6 per cent. In fact Tax components like PAL, NBT and CESS, generally classified as “para-tariffs” and common to the South Asian region are calculated over existing import taxes.

In the absence of sanitary pads probably the only alternative for poor families in Sri Lanka using the old/ rag cloth. This is widely explained as a poor menstrual hygiene practice which could lead to cervical cancer.

According to the statistics, every year in Sri Lanka 1,721 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer of which 690 die from the disease making it the largest and most common type of cancer following breast cancer.

The UNFPA Representative Ritsu Nacken said that 60 per cent of Sri Lankan parents don’t send their girls to school when they have their periods. It clearly shows the inter-relationship between sanitary pads and the education of girl children in the country, which makes it imperative not to delay a decision on this matter. Senior Advisor at the Sri Lanka Water Partnership, Kusum Athukorala, told the Sunday Observer that this is the main issue which they have come across during sanitation programs conducted in association with rural schools.

“We have been working a lot on school sanitation and one of the problems we found was that school toilets are blocked due to the disposal of sanitary pads. Then we started to think about menstrual hygiene management and sanitation. From there we began looking at the impact of menstruation on a girl, specially where there are no proper toilets in schools. We found that girls don’t go to school on those days. This has a very bad impact on education of girls. Because if a girl child loses a 3 or 4 days a month it’s going to affect her education,” she said.

Protectionism vs women

In Sri Lanka the average price of a locally produced packet of 10 pads stands at Rs.130 while imported pads are priced between Rs.200 – 260. Protectionist taxes which only target the boost of the local sanitary pad industry have paid zero or less attention to its consumers, the women. Researchers have found that local producers have a big profit margin per packet as the prices of imported products in the market are high, owing to several taxes.

“In a country with 4.2 million menstruating women and a population that is 52 per cent women, you’ would think wewould know better than to tax a woman on something that is beyond her control; but we do not’’ said Anuki Premachandra of the Advocata Institute. Anuki who serves as the Manager-Research Communication at Advocata had been canvassing on the sanitary pad problem during the past couple of months.

“Import taxes on sanitary napkins in Sri Lanka are as high as 62 per cent and what our policy makers fail to realise is that this is a tax on a woman’s biological process that she has no control over. Are we still a society that fails to provide a woman access to a basic necessity? Is it not time we said times up Sri Lanka?” said Anuki.

In the other corners of the world

Kenya, a country to the ‘so called’backward continent of Africa, was the first country to abolish tax on menstrual products in 2004 displaying their true values as a society. After an 18-year campaign, the 10 per cent tax on tampons and pads was lifted in Australia after states and territories agreed to make sanitary products exempt from the GST (Goods and Services Tax) very recently. Canada lifted its tampon tax in mid-2015 following an online petition.

Our neighbour,India, also eliminated its 12 per cent tax on feminine hygiene products last year taking a step forward unlike us Sri Lankans.This was after a year of lobbying by advocacy groups and even celebrities. Bollywood Superstar Akshay Kumar featured as the lead male actor in the Pad Man movie in which he fought the taboo on menstruation. “Mother strong, Sister strong and Woman strong; Country strong” he said delivering a speech in the movie.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, where drugs and medical devices are free of value added tax, lobbyists have been trying to make tampons and sanitary pads a medical device and exempt it from VAT.

“We started working on menstrual hygiene management, discussing with girls and the school administration about how girls can manage on those days and also what kind of support they can be given by schools. Also, we know that the cost of sanitary napkins is a huge problem for girls in poor families” said Kusum Athukorala.

“I was personally hoping that taxes of sanitary napkins whether it is local or imported would have been lifted by the Government as the present government is very supportive of women. But this is not something which has so far not gained the necessary attention.

The Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Education could bring this to the attention of the Finance Minister. This time the budget is very good on sanitation but they have not paid attention to this matter” she added.

Secretary to the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs and Dry Zone Development, Darshana Senanayake told the Sunday Observer that the reduction of taxes on sanitary pads is a timely necessity. “We have not actually discussed about this matter at ministry level.

But I recently came across this matter at a meeting with women with restricted abilities. Also we cannot compare the present society with earlier days. Therefore, the sanitary pad is a necessity for girls and women. We should focus on this matter in the near future” she said.