Insensitivity leads to discrimination

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Menstruation is a natural biological process that happens to every women and girls. It can be consider as an involuntary biological monthly occurrence. Menstrual period is part of the menstruation cycle and it is linked to the reproductive health. The term ‘menstruation’ is stigmatised around the world, especially in South Asia.

What is period poverty?

Research conducted by Advocata Institute found that Sri Lanka’s period poverty rate is 50 per cent. This means that 50 per cent of households with women of menstruating age do not report spending any amount of money on sanitary napkins.

Period poverty means lack of access to sanitary products, basic menstrual hygiene education, hygiene facilities, and waste management. Thus, if women or girls cannot afford menstrual hygiene products in financial constraints, it can be identified as period poverty. In the Sri Lankan culture, the situation of women and girls has been influenced by patriarchal values embedded in tradition. So, this topic has often trivialised as a taboo topic but is not new. And there is no doubt it has become a more visible during the economic crisis in Sri Lanka.

How does economic necessity contribute to period poverty in Sri Lanka?

Today, we have been faced with a severe economic crisis. As a consequence of this economic necessity we have no sufficient basic human needs such as medicine, education, water, nutrition, sanitation, and hygiene. When we talk about this economic crisis the question is, how did it occur?

Sri Lankan economic crisis is a result of poor economic policy decisions, diminishing foreign exchange, COVID-19 impact, and overall corruptions and lack of good governance.

In the past, Sri Lanka had a better living conditions and economic stability. But we know, currently, the situation of Sri Lanka is much more than just an economic crisis. Clearly it is a humanitarian crisis.

When we consider the evolution of menstrual hygiene products tax in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka customs reported that to be 101.2 per cent (2018), 62.6 per cent (2019), and 52 per cent (2020) and according to budget for 2021 the tax on menstrual hygiene products has been levied to 53.06 per cent. Thus, we can explicate sanitary napkins and menstrual hygiene products in Sri Lanka have been taxed at high rates but the tax has been somewhat reduced as of late. However, with the current economic necessity, period poverty has surfaced once again in Sri Lanka and it has deprived women and girls of their access to sanitary products.

With the severe economic crisis, at current market prizes, a sanitary napkin packet containing 10 pads cost is around Rs 300 as of August 2022. In this case of Sri Lanka the poor menstrual hygiene management has been increasing and high prize of menstruation products show very high level of period poverty.

How does period poverty impact on social wellbeing?

Period poverty is creating a rigorous problem for women and girls in low-income groups of society. Especially, in the rural areas and estate sector in Sri Lanka. In this economic burden low-income earners cannot access to the menstrual products and sanitary facilities. Therefore, they have to use unhygienic replacement such as old cloths. On the other hand, with the increasing prize of menstruation products, Sri Lankan’s female population has been marginalised.

Period poverty is direct interlinked with health, economic, education, gender, and susceptibility of reproduction. According to the medical research, poor menstrual hygiene has been identified as a risk factor for poor mental health outcomes such as anxiety, depression, developing urogenital infection, and cervical cancer as well as reduced quality of life of female population. Further, period should not limit the opportunities women and girls have. Therefore, exorbitant taxes on menstruation products should be eradicated completely.

Most of the countries such as Australia, Kenya, India, and Thailand have now removed taxes imposed on menstrual hygiene products. In 2020, Scotland became the first country to offer period products free of charge to anyone in need of them. However, Sri Lanka could not completely remove tax on menstrual products.

Period poverty is directly linked with Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 3 – ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages, SDG 4 – ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, SDG 5 – achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, and SDG 6 – ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. But in the current economic necessity, access to low-cost feminine hygiene products is severely limited. Moreover, there is no effective educational method to teach menstruation hygiene and no sufficient sanitary facilities. So, how can we discuss a sustainable development with these disparities of menstrual hygiene management? On the other hand, how can we achieve SDGs in 2030 as an insensitive society?

(The writer is a Temporary Project Assistant in the Faculty of Education at the Open University of Sri Lanka and a postgraduate student of University of Kelaniya. Her research interests cover several aspects of sociology, mainly medical sociology, gender, and community development.)

By Chandani Dissanayake