By Ama H. Vanniarachchcy
“Menstruation is not a problem; poor menstrual hygiene is.”
Period poverty is one of the major concerns of today’s world. Period poverty is generally understood as inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and education, including but not limited to sanitary products only but also poor access to washing facilities, and waste management.
According to the recently launched report titled Taxing Menstrual Hygiene Products in Sri Lanka; A Policy Analysis, a study conducted by Advocata Institute, with the funding by the ACCEND Project (Assisting Communities in Creating Environmental and Nutritional Development), at present, Sri Lanka’s period poverty rate stands at approximately 50 per cent.
As this study says, among the many factors that contribute to Sri Lanka’s 50 per cent period poverty rate, the prices of sanitary napkins have a notable negative impact. According to the report, Sri Lanka’s imported menstrual products are taxed at 52 per cent with border tariffs, and local VAT contributes to the local tax rate. Sri Lanka’s border taxes are a mixture of tariffs and a number of additional levies referred to as para-tariffs. These price increases and the unaffordability they cause, result in period poverty, defined as the inability to afford menstrual products.
The study has focussed on understanding the impact this cumulative tax has on the country’s rate of period poverty, its impact on low-income menstruating women and girls, and the costs and benefits to the State of repealing the tax.
According to this study, sanitary napkins and menstrual hygiene products in Sri Lanka have been taxed at high rates over the years and prior to September 2018, the tax was at 101.2 per cent, but has now been reduced to 52 per cent.
Taxing sanitary napkins have resulted in unaffordability due to inflated market prices, creating a lack of access to menstrual hygiene products. This unaffordability is rampant amongst low-income earning segments of Sri Lankan society.
It is also explained here that high taxes on menstrual hygiene products, which lead to period poverty have also been popularly cited as a contributory factor for many adverse socio-economic outcomes such as increased absenteeism amongst schoolgirls, unfavourable impact on health such as increased numbers in cervical cancer and urogenital infections, menstruating women’s inability to maintain healthy, emotional wellbeing throughout the month, inhibiting the consumer’s right to choice and agency, and increased rates of female unemployment and absenteeism at work.
The study report also says that given the lack of research in this area locally, they have conducted the survey with the available evidence on aspects of women’s wellbeing and identified common threats based on international literature and surveys.
Sanitary products taxes in Sri Lanka
Prior to September 2018, Sri Lanka’s sanitary napkins and tampons were taxed at 101.2 per cent, and in September 2018, the Minister of Finance repealed the CESS component of this tax, reducing the total tax rate to 62.6 per cent.
Further, in December 2019 the newly elected President introduced a tax cut programme, which resulted in a reduction of VAT and the removal of the Nation Building Tax (NBT) for all goods. This brought the total tax levied on sanitary napkins to 52 per cent.
The 2021 budget revised the general duties for sanitary napkins from 30 per cent to 15 per cent and re-imposed the CESS of 15 per cent.
The Advocata Report analysis further says that the average woman or girl changes her sanitary absorbents three times per day at a minimum and has her period for around five days. Therefore, the monthly requirement amounts to approximately 15 sanitary absorbents per menstruating woman in a household. At current market prices, the cheapest sanitary napkin packet containing 10 pieces costs Rs 125 as of April 2021. As such, the lowest price per pad is Rs 12.50.
Assuming that on average a woman will have her period for five days and would require three pads per day, a menstruating Sri Lankan woman will end up spending Rs 187.5 for the duration of her period, if she buys the cheapest option available in the market.
The link between period poverty and women’s wellbeing
The report suggests that there is a paucity of clear evidence on the extent to which absenteeism is solely due to girls’ menstruation and although it is difficult to quantify the direct impact of a sanitary napkin tax on access to education due to limitation in data, it has been noted that pain, discomfort, and fear of staining a white uniform would negatively affect a girl’s overall school experience.
Based on the available literature, the study report indicates that the use of alternative menstrual hygiene products such as cloth rags make women vulnerable to diseases such as cervical cancer even though Sri Lanka has a low incidence of cervical cancer.
Hence, the study emphasises that the importance of access to sufficient menstrual hygiene products that meet specific biological and medical needs is a basic human necessity.
The study further says that ending period taxes is a global movement and has caught the attention of feminists all over the world, widely.
Menstrual hygiene product taxes that disproportionately target women have been the subject of scrutiny for many global activists, academics, and professionals. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which enshrines the right to dignity in its preamble states, “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”
The stigma surrounding menstrual hygiene and lack of access provided to sanitary products undermines the stated rights and dignity of women.
The reduction of the cost should not at all affect the quality of sanitary napkins. The global movement of period poverty and menstrual hygiene emphasises the need to make cheaper, qualitative, and safer products affordable and accessible, enhancing consumer choice for all segments of society through effective and inclusive trade and fiscal policies.
The Advocata Study sets out the following reform recommendations in order to make menstrual hygiene products in Sri Lanka affordable and accessible:
The Ministry of Finance remove General Duty (15 per cent), CESS (15 per cent), PAL (10 per cent), and VAT (8 per cent) 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 zero.
Removing tariffs on imported raw materials used to produce sanitary napkins and other menstrual products.
The reduction in these taxes can be implemented by the Ministry of Finance through the publication of an Extraordinary Gazette, including the above changes.
The study further reveals that tax repeal will result in the final product being cheaper and more accessible to low-income women and girls.
Kenya and Australia have placed a benchmark by demonstrating that the elimination of the local GST and border tariffs reduced prices and increased access and availability of a variety of products, ensuring choice for menstruating females.
Also, it is important to remove high taxes on raw materials used in the production of menstrual hygiene products as such taxes result in higher retail prices on the locally produced final product and are an additional barrier to entrepreneurs and local small-scale producers.
It should be noted that research about Sri Lanka’s period poverty and sanitary napkins tax has not been formally conducted before. Hence, this research is a valuable addition to the menstrual hygiene literature and knowledge in Sri Lanka.
The launch of the study report
This study was conducted by Advocata Institute on behalf of the ACCEND Project, which is jointly implemented by ADRA and Oxfam, and funded by the European Union. The launch took place on 15 March 2022 at the Galle Face Hotel, where a copy of the study was presented to the chief guest and keynote speaker, Dr. Harini Amarasuriya by Country Programme Manager for Oxfam in Sri Lanka, Tilak Karunaratne, and Country Director for ADRA Sri Lanka, Matthew Whitty.
The launch was followed by a panel discussion that focussed on the physical repercussions of period poverty and its socio-economic impact on women. The panelists were Head of Mentors at the Arka Initiative, Dr. Rashmira Balasuriya, member of the Progressive Women’s Collective and activist, Vraie Balthazaar and Gender Coordinator for Oxfam in Sri Lanka, Lakmini Jayathilake.
The Assisting Communities in Creating Environmental and Nutritional Development (ACCEND) project is a 57 month-long project funded by the European Union, implemented by Oxfam Sri Lanka and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA).
In collaboration with the Government of Sri Lanka, the ACCEND project aims to uplift and improve water, sanitation, hygiene, health, and nutrition in the estate and rural communities of Matale, Monaragala, and Nuwara Eliya Districts. Gender justice and disaster risk reduction are woven across the project activities as cross-cutting themes.
(Pix by Ashan Gamage)