India welcomed the Goods and Services Tax (GST), a new tax regime on July 1, 2017. The tax reform, which embodies the principle of “one nation, one tax, one market”, had an impact on various industries in the country. While the GST has been greeted with cheers by many, it simultaneously has brought concerns over the issues of sanitary napkins.
A sanitary napkin should be considered as a fundamental right of every woman, as it is a necessity every month. Turning a deaf ear to the outcry of women to make sanitary napkins tax-free, the GST imposes 12% tax on this necessary item. Though there has been a fall from the earlier tax rate of 14.5%, the decision is still irrational, as products like sindoor and bindis are tax free. I can not understand how this makes sense for the government.
Putting sanitary napkins, an essential need for almost all adult women, in a non-essential tax bracket, shows the utter ignorance of women’s health issues by the government.
Recently, the Delhi High Court slammed the centre for not exempting sanitary napkins from the GST ambit, even as products like bindi, sindoor and kajal are kept out. The centre, however, argued that the price of sanitary napkins would rise if exempted from tax.
Menstruation is a natural and an unavoidable biological process for women. All women on an average menstruate from the age of 12 – 51. The process is as natural as sleeping, eating or drinking and is also necessary as there is no life without it.
Women already face a lot of discomfort that menstruation brings in every month, and on top of that, the added expenditure makes things even more miserable. You can avoid an outing during the days your pocket feels light, but the expense associated with menstrual hygiene products is as unavoidable as menstruation itself. It might be easy for us to say that these products are affordable when we can afford to dine and shop at exotic places, but for the less privileged, it is not all that easy. The biggest barrier to using a sanitary napkin is affordability, and the facts speak for themselves.
According to a survey, only 12% of India’s 355 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins and the remaining 88% of women resort to shocking alternatives like unsanitized cloth, ash and husk sand. Around 70% of women say their family cannot afford to buy sanitary napkins, and maybe it is these figures that make people believe that sanitary napkins are a luxury item when in fact, they are a necessity.
This inadequate menstrual protection makes adolescent girls (age 12-18 years) miss five days of school in a month, which makes it 50 days a year. Around 23% of these girls actually drop out of school after they start menstruating.
Incidents of Reproductive Tract Infection (RTI) are 70% more common among women who do not use sanitary napkins. Nearly 97% gynaecologists in a survey conducted in October 2010 by AC Nielsen believed that use of napkins reduced the risk of severe RTIs. Around 64% of them also believed that sanitary napkins also reduce the risk of cervical cancer.
Menstrual hygiene is lowest in eastern India with 83% women saying their families cannot afford sanitary napkins. Every woman goes through puberty, and hence every woman bleeds monthly. Sanitary napkins are not an ‘urban’ requirement, every woman in the country should be able to access and afford them. It is not like the government has not done anything to make sanitary napkins affordable in rural areas.
Back in 2012, the Union Health Ministry along with Family Welfare Ministry had launched a ₹100 crore scheme to push access and affordability of sanitary napkins among adolescent girls in rural areas. While it faced access and safe disposal issues, the fact that it didn’t significantly increase usage of sanitary napkins is a matter of concern. This means that there are other factors than the cost, which hinder menstrual hygiene in India.
Awareness is another big evil in the way. Forget the government, a large section of India’s women think that sanitary pads and tampons are luxury items. Therefore, we have another big task to deal with, and that is of spreading awareness in our society.
However, even to bring about awareness, making sanitary napkins and tampons tax-free is the first step. In a country where women are forced to use things like straw and ash during their periods, putting a tax on sanitary napkins seems like a travesty of common sense. Taxing women for a biological process they have no control over is like taxing women for who they are.