The Menstrual Equity Revolution: Beyond Taxation

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Posted by: Shruti Khanna and Debapriya Chanda
Category: Gender, Public Health and Nutrition
The Menstrual Equity Revolution: Beyond Taxation

In recent years, there has been a monumental shift in the fight for menstrual equity with the elimination of taxes on feminine hygiene products in many countries. This pivotal moment was celebrated as a giant leap toward gender equality, aiming to make menstrual products more affordable and accessible. However, a startling truth emerges amidst the celebration – the global landscape still paints a grim picture marked by low menstrual product usage and restricted access.

The Tax-Free Revolution:

The world witnessed a global wave of tax-free initiatives for menstrual products, sparking a significant shift in the dialogue surrounding menstrual equity. It all started when Kenya pioneered in 2004 by eliminating Value Added Tax (VAT) on sanitary products. This bold move inspired 17 other countries, including India, to follow suit. These tax exemptions were not just symbolic victories for gender equality; they were strategic steps to make these essential items more attainable. The central argument was that reduced taxation would naturally lead to lower prices, ultimately making it easier for menstruating people to access these products. However, real-world case studies have shown that achieving this desired outcome is far from guaranteed.

In countries like Australia, removing GST from menstrual products successfully translated to reduced consumer costs, largely due to a robust legal framework within the retail sector. In contrast, VAT exemptions on sanitary pads in Tanzania did not yield the same results, mainly because 90% of product sales in the country occur through small shops with significant price variations. Similarly, India and Bangladesh have experienced inconsistent or no reductions in prices.

The Global Predicament

The sobering reality unfolds globally, with approximately 500 million women, girls, and menstruating individuals experiencing period poverty worldwide. They struggle to access menstrual products and find safe, private, and hygienic spaces to manage their menstruation. Beyond taxation, a multitude of factors come into play, including inadequate infrastructure, economic constraints, educational gaps, and cultural stigmas, all contributing to the challenges surrounding menstrual product access and usage.

Evidence mounts to show that girls’ inability to manage their menstrual hygiene in schools leads to school absenteeism, which, in turn, carries severe economic costs for their lives and nations as a whole. Statistics from UNICEF and WHO reveal that globally, around 698 million children lack essential sanitation services at their schools, including 367 million attending schools with no sanitation services, making it exceedingly difficult for women and girls worldwide to manage their menstruation. A study by Plan International UK has found that 1 in 10 girls have been unable to afford sanitary products and use unhygienic substitutes such as newspaper, toilet paper, and socks instead.

Moreover, the pervasive taboos and stigmas attached to menstruation result in a culture of silence, resulting in limited information on menstruation and menstrual hygiene. A recent study by the World Bank Group examining the intricate relationship between water and gender further illustrates how neglecting menstrual hygiene needs deepens the lower status of women and girls.

The Indian Scenario

India’s decision to eliminate taxes on feminine hygiene products in 2018 marked a significant step towards gender equity and menstrual hygiene awareness. This progress needs to be marked with increased access and usage of menstrual products. Currently, there is still a gap in the number of women who can access menstrual hygiene products, behind which lie several reasons.

Firstly, GST exemptions on sanitary pads reduced their prices, but not as much since local manufacturers were denied input tax credits, making domestic production economically unviable. Secondly, many adolescent menstruators are unaware about menstruation until they experience their first period. Level of education also contributes to this awareness: stats reveal that the exclusive use of hygienic methods during menstruation is four times higher among women in rural India with higher education (62%) than those without education (15%).

Regional disparities further compound the issue, with rural areas being less likely to opt for menstrual protection than urban areas. Individuals in lower income brackets face more significant difficulties in obtaining and using hygienic menstrual products.

Lastly, deep-rooted socio-cultural barriers persist, as menstruation is often associated with the notion of being impure in many parts of India. This hinders open discussions about menstrual health, with 70% of mothers considering menstruation as ‘dirty,’ limiting crucial conversations with their daughters. In North Karnataka, a cross-sectional study conducted in 2020 revealed that around 9% of girls are required to stay outside their homes during their periods, 43% avoid cultural functions, and 9% are completely absent from school during menstruation. Addressing these multifaceted challenges is imperative to achieve menstrual equity in India.

Despite the triumph of eliminating taxes on feminine hygiene products in many countries, countless women and girls still face significant barriers to maintaining menstrual health, encompassing both access to and usage of these crucial products. It becomes evident that addressing the issue goes beyond taxation, as a multitude of factors, such as inadequate infrastructure, economic constraints, educational gaps, and cultural stigmas, contribute to the challenges surrounding menstrual product access and usage.

Where do we go from here?

The tax-free revolution marked the beginning, but the road to menstrual equity is long, and it’s evident that a multifaceted approach is essential to turn this challenge into a real triumph for menstrual hygiene on a global scale.

This comprehensive strategy goes beyond the elimination of taxes and involves several key elements. Firstly, it calls for establishing mechanisms for government accountability, empowering consumers, and fortifying the legal framework to complement tax reductions. Additionally, it emphasizes the need for comprehensive menstrual education, making menstrual hygiene products more accessible and affordable, breaking the pervasive silence surrounding menstruation, and encouraging the private sector to commit to compliance.

By implementing these crucial policy tools and fostering a holistic approach, we can pave the way for a genuine victory in the realm of menstrual hygiene, ensuring that all women can manage their periods with dignity and without barriers.

Shruti Khanna – Senior Manager, Sambodhi

Debapriya Chanda – Deputy Manager, Sambodhi

Author: Shruti Khanna and Debapriya Chanda