Ever since a Congress MP from Assam started an online petition to make sanitary pads tax free, there has been a lot of debate around this issue. But will it really help?
Your social media pages might be specked with opinions that are red, black, and brown like menstruation. Swathes of studies like nicely packaged sanitary pads are informing you that merely 10-12% of women use pads in India. It is, in fact, a solitary study conducted by AC Nielsen called the “Sanitary Protection: Every Woman’s Health Right” that the media is widely quoting. It declares that 88% of women in India are driven to use ashes, newspapers, sand husks and dried leaves during their periods because they find sanitary pads unaffordable. As a result of these unhygienic practices, more than 70% of women suffer from reproductive tract infections.
What is not being disclosed is that the researchers at AC Nielsen interviewed only 1033 women, a sample size which is being criticised for not being adequately representative of India’s population or diversity. It is, therefore, difficult to confirm or dismiss whether 88% women use the galling and gut-cringing practice of using sand, dried leaves, or newspaper but it remains callously reminiscent of India’s stark poverty. Using cloth, however, as mentioned by the Indian Medical Gazette sustains itself as an accepted practice. But to be able to reuse a cloth, women need to rigorously wash it and expose it to the sun or stand the risk of severe infections. Therefore, sanitary pads, often at the threat of environmental damage, remain one of the viable options for most women.
Doesn’t this mean that sanitary pads shouldn’t be taxed?
Commercial sanitary pads are not cheap. Though there are government schemes to distribute free or highly subsidized pads, their reach remains limited and cannot ensure the accessibility market forces can promise. Recently, the Delhi Government announced that it will cut taxes from 12.5% to 5% for sanitary pads costing above Rs 20, but the roar for no taxation on female hygiene products in times of GST has only begun to gain bass.
A basic pad that is bulky and uncomfortable (at a cost of Rs. 2-4 per pad) is the cheapest option for most women. The branded variants which are longer (up to 290 mm), thinner, equipped with wings with good adhesives, and are better absorbents can cost anywhere from Rs. 8-12 per pad. Rough calculations say that an average woman may use 8-10 pads in a month which can cost her anywhere between Rs 40 (along with the cost of discomfort) to Rs. 100- 150.
The seemingly small amount in urban discussions deters most rural women who can’t access or afford pads and deal with a multitude of taboos around menstruation. Ingrained patriarchy and ensuing anathemas often stop them from spending money on personal hygiene and well-being as well. This means that perfumed pads that offer good protection and are rash and irritation free are only an urban phenomenon. Activists are, therefore, putting forth a compelling question that if contraceptives and condoms are tax-free, why are sanitary pads being taxed? The argument is layered with a pro-poor sentiment that non-taxation will help make sanitary pads affordable.
Is there a sanitary pad tax around the world?
Women around the world, in the US, Australia, Malaysia, and some European countries are demanding a repeal of taxes on female hygiene products. The current rate of taxes on female hygiene products is given below
- Australia – 10%
- France – 5.5%
- Canada – 0%
- Kenya – 0% but raw materials are taxed
- Germany – 19%
- Italy – 4%
- UK – 5%
What about the Indian Market?
Though prices have fallen and better quality sanitary pads along with tampons and moon cups have entered the Indian market, facts say that there is neither enough competition nor penetration in our country. Procter & Gamble’s product Whisper is a clear market leader with 56% market share, Johnson & Johnson’s Stayfree and Carefree have 28% market share with others like Kotex, Sofy lag far behind as per a report of Motilal Oswal. In fact, P&G is utilizing only 1.3-2million outlets of its 6 million outlets to sell its female hygiene products.
If the 12% GST (as being anticipated) is removed, a packet of 10 sanitary pads that costs an average Rs 100 could cost Rs 88. This doesn’t seem like a big difference now but it might have far-reaching consequences.
When the government in its 2016 budget lowered custom duty on super absorbent polymer, a key raw material for sanitary napkins, from 7.5 % to 5 % and duty on wood pulp, another key raw material from 5 % to 2.5 %, Procter & Gamble was greatly benefited. It reduced the prices of its sanitary napkins and Whisper acquired a 56% market share in 2016. The clinking profits were despite India’s poor market penetration of female hygiene products. We stand at an abysmal 16 % whereas China, Thailand and Indonesia have over 50 % penetration, while Kenya has over 30 % penetration according to AC Nielsen.
The case of sanitary pads can be compared with condoms in India. Price Runner Safe Sex League Table 2009 surveyed 33 cities and placed Mumbai as the cheapest place to buy condoms at £1.29 a pack (10 condoms), while the global average was £6.69. Another field study by AC Nielsen in 2008 claimed that the condom market stood at 1143.90 million pieces. Though the subsidized segment constituted 54% and the commercial segment 46%, the commercial segment has been rising and in 2008 alone, has grown at 21.46%.
Though the raw materials required to make sanitary pads are not the most expensive, many establishment costs and general entry barriers for businesses in India deter entrepreneurs. However, the socio-cultural aspect associated with menstruation has ensured that it isn’t just the ad-spewing brands like Whisper and Stayfree that produce sanitary pads. Lesser-known companies such as Aakar Innovations and the highly reputed, Muruganantham’s (Pad-Man of India) Jayashree Industries have helped extend this business to SHGs. SHGs employ women who buy their own sanitary-pad making machine, establish a franchise, and ensure continual production of affordable pads that are then sold through various methods like door-to-door, through beauticians, among others.
Sanitary pads are not a luxury, their demand will not be quenched like a changing fad, therefore non-taxation might incentivize more and more entrepreneurs and established companies to venture into the female hygiene market. In turn, the increased competition will help reduce costs and ensure that sanitary pads become affordable across India.
But the solution isn’t merely affordability of sanitary pads. In a study published by National Journal for Community Medicine, researchers spoke to girls in 11 villages of Pune and found that a staggering 43.2% girls miss school during their periods. The chief reasons understood were lack of toilets or common toilet entrance for both boys and girls along with dirty, waterless toilets without locks or dustbins. The study concluded that absenteeism often serves as a trigger for drop outs which is accentuated by the parents’ and societal reluctance to educate the girl once she attains puberty and adamance to quit school to help at home, perform domestic chores, and eventually get married.
What is the government doing?
Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) guidelines of the government concentrate on spreading awareness and removing the taboo around menstruation. It recognises the need to spread awareness among adolescent boys and girls and sets aside a budget to train community leaders, panchayat officials, and even state level secretaries about menstruation. Districts and states are given guidelines to ensure implementation through monitoring of KPI and other indicators.
At the school level, apart from spreading awareness with boys and male teachers, the guidelines also focus on “talking to parents about MHM in the context of girl’s access to education, school completion and access to a toilet and soap and water at home.” It also supports the “establishment of support groups, such as the Girls Hygiene Clubs, perhaps linked to the child cabinets is an essential part of ensuring peer-to-peer learning and sharing of information.”
In terms of hygiene, it directs each school to provide the following –
- Separate toilet (for boys and girls) and sanitation blocks located in safe location to assure privacy/adequate privacy wall; based on a ratio 1 toilet for every 40 girls (and/or 1 urinal for every 20 girls).
- Adequate space in the cubicle for girls to change their napkins/cloth and to wash themselves.
- Toilet cubicles with a shelf, hooks or niche to keep clothing and menstrual adsorbents dry.
- Safe disposal of menstrual waste
- A well-positioned mirror so that girls can check for stains on their clothes.
- A private bathing or changing units, including a place for drying their reusable menstrual absorbent.