The Goods and Services Tax (GST) Council on Saturday, 21st July, 2018, announced that sanitary napkins would be exempted from GST. Hitherto they were taxed at 12% under the one-year-old GST regime. The highly controversial “luxury tag” on sanitary napkins has finally been scrapped. This move is welcomed as a much awaited first step for economic empowerment of girls and women.
In India, there are over 355 million girls and women who menstruate. 71% of girls have no knowledge about menstruation prior to their first period and 70% of women lack access to sanitary napkins. It clearly shows that the majority of girls and women depend upon low-cost, affordable alternatives during menstruation.
Menstruation has forced young girls to stay out of school due to a lack of toilets while facing the fear of soiling their dresses and getting teased by boys. In rural areas, many girls drop out of school once they hit menarche. In this way, lack of knowledge and access to clean, affordable, and hygienic menstrual products have acted as an impediment to education of girls.
India has witnessed a 70% increase in Reproductive Tract Infection (RTI) over the years and 23% of girls drop out of school once they reach puberty. The harsh reality is that most women in India prefer to use unsafe alternatives to sanitary napkins not because they want to but because they simply cannot afford menstrual hygiene products. Therefore, they have no other option than to use unhygienic ones.
Poor menstrual hygiene affects physical, mental, and social well-being of females. Thus, this is a violation of the human right to health. Family Planning Association of India’s initiative to provide not just low-cost/affordable sanitary napkins to underprivileged girls and women, but also to provide information on menstrual health and hygiene through Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) is aimed at empowerment of girls and women.
Access to menstrual hygienic products every month is neither a luxury nor a choice. It’s an absolute necessity. Applying a tax to products which are solely used by women is an indicator of institutionalised gender discrimination. GST on sanitary napkins hit women and girls, hence from the beginning, sanitary napkins should not have attracted GST.
However, the latest decision of the government is a major step in normalising menstruation as a biological process. To ensure that women across India have an access to sanitary napkins and other menstrual hygiene products, accountability from the government as well as policy changes is required. There should be sufficient allocation of funds and transparency in their disbursement to promote menstrual hygiene among women. Eco-friendly and bio-degradable supplies of menstrual hygiene products such as sanitary napkins, menstrual cups, and tampons, should be made more affordable and accessible to the women and girls of India. At the same time, information on menstrual hygiene management should also be provided, just as FPA India has always been doing.