Taxing sanitary pads is akin to violation of human rights
The Government of India has a non-negotiable duty towards healthcare and enacting gender sensitive legislations, as enshrined in the Constitution of India. India is also a signatory to the Addis Ababa Action Agenda that calls for countries to enforce and adopt gender sensitive budgeting. Moreover, India having adopted the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations should be unconditionally driven towards achieving gender equality, good health and well-being, sanitation and reduced inequalities.
Science defines menstruation as the periodic shedding of the lining of a woman’s uterus. A woman should expect to menstruate at least 450 times during her lifetime. So, every menstruating woman who has access to sanitary napkins would pay taxation to the Government on purchasing sanitary napkins at least 450 times. The fact that a woman is liable to pay tax on her inevitability to menstruate, a process inherent in every biologically born woman, is a blatant denial of her womanhood and an outright compromise of her dignity akin to a human rights violation.
The objective of any legislation in our nation must qualify as constitutional and welfare oriented. 12% GST on sanitary napkins is unjust. In a nation where woman are conditioned to conceal menstruation, this takes the insensitivity even further, by classifying it as a taxable commodity.
A citizen contributes a great deal to the economy by paying taxes. Women can contribute to the country’s growth in ways better than paying taxes on their menstrual cycles. Not only should sanitary pads be exempted from taxation, but classified as an essential commodity further subsidized by the Government, in the interest of hygiene and health.
Sanitary napkins have been grouped with toys, leather goods, roasted coffee, mobile phones and processed foods amongst others. The blurring rationale behind placing a sanitation product with goods non-essential to survival, reflect the extent of gender-inclusive priorities of the State.
On the other hand, Sindoor, alta, kumkum, bangles, condoms, contraceptives, human hair have all been exempted from taxation. The State considers discounting sindoor from taxation, an apparent symbol of devotion to her husband, but, is indifferent towards all women bereft from using sanitary napkins to understand its significance, starting from tax-exemption.
Engaging in sexual intercourse is a recognized need of every living being and to ensure it is responsibly done, the government makes contraceptives and condoms available tax-free. However, nature chooses to not give women the discretion to allow menstruation or not. It is a process that will happen, month after month, every year. But, the Government decides to tax them.
Prior to the sanitary napkin invention, women used traditional methods like rags, sand, wood pulp and more. Sanitary napkins were commercially manufactured for the first time in 1888. Belted sanitary napkins were replaced by absorbent disposable pads in 1980’s. However, even in the 21st century, a sanitary napkin seems to be a luxury product limited to the urban woman or the woman who has access to pads. In 2017, almost 88% of Indian women are still using traditional methods during their period.
At SheSays we began the #LahuKaLagaan campaign in order to get an absolute tax exemption on sanitary napkins.
The first reason is that any amount of taxation on the most basic menstrual product is grossly unreasonable. Whether this tax is paid by an entrepreneur or a daily wage earner does not change the irrationality. The second reason is that there is a reason why sanitary napkins were invented as a more hygienic, convenient and safe absorbent to be used over traditional methods. If I were to fall for the argument that women have been using cloth all these years, then why evolve at all?
Why do we need technology or hospitals or airplanes or anything modernised when we have traditional alternatives for everything? The primary factor here is that if a sanitary napkin was invented for menstruation, it cannot be classified as a privilege of some women, leaving behind the majority because they have been using and have the option to use conservative substitutes.
The third reason is that, yes, when a product is exempted from taxation, the message from the State to the people is a powerful one, just like when a product is taxed very heavily. Demerit goods are heavily taxed in order to discourage people from utilising them. Similarly, goods that are integral to survival and dignity are tax free, to encourage equitable consumption.
Lastly, the severe lack of menstrual health and hygiene education and lack of accessibility across the nation contributes largely to women being kept away from sanitary napkins. Private manufacturers of sanitary napkins from, advertisement to sales are known to target the urban minority in developed areas. We need to start with recognizing every girl and every woman’s entitlement to this product, and not just women who are aware about it and can afford it.
Sanitary napkins need to be projected as an essential product alike for all women. It is no surprise that the Government has been getting away with taxation on a thing so fundamental to a woman’s right to life.
As a nation, we need to raise awareness about using a sanitary pad in every household, without leaving any woman behind. We must create an environment where woman are not only comfortable but even proud about menstruating and using safe sanitary napkins, as an inalienable right. Pursuant to which, as a country we can move towards environment friendly bio-degradable pads.
For every woman to whom a sanitary napkin is available in a variety of sizes there are nearly 11 women who save old rags, newspapers and wood shavings to get through menstruation every month.
We will continue to work tirelessly towards ensuring affordability, accessibility and awareness of menstrual health and hygiene. This will be a milestone in transforming this society into a gender sensitive one, by upholding the dignity inherent in life.
Prageeyaa Khanna is a lawyer by training and based in Mumbai. She is a gender advocacy lead with SheSays - which is a non profit organisation is working towards educating, empowering and rehabilitating the victims of sexual abuse and violence across India.