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What's 'luxury' about periods? Demand for tax-free sanitary pads starts hunger strike

Durga M Sengupta | Updated on: 22 June 2017, 22:07 IST
(Photo: Arya Sharma/Catch News)

So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?

Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event:

Men would brag about how long and how much.

Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood...

...Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of such commercial brands as Paul Newman Tampons, Muhammad Ali's Rope-a-Dope Pads, John Wayne Maxi Pads, and Joe Namath Jock Shields- "For Those Light Bachelor Days."

– Gloria Steinem, If Men Could Menstruate

Steinem's musings make one wonder if the atrociously high 12-14% Goods and Service Tax (GST) on sanitary pads in India would've been lifted if men started menstruating. Possibly.

But because that's pure fantasy, women have had to launch a hunger strike to protest the 'luxury' tax, or #LahuKaLagaan as social media prefers to call it, on an essential product. Women from Latur district's Vichardhara Grami Vikas Sanstha (VGVS) are protesting at Azad Maidan in Mumbai, threatening to starve themselves if sanitary pads aren't made tax-free.

"We will not withdraw the stir till the sanitary pads are excluded from the purview of GST," Chhaya Kakde, a member of VGVS, told PTI. "We have also written to Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis with our demand," she added.

Where's the 'luxury'?

It is ridiculous to levy a luxury tax on an item that all women and some transpersons require for an average of 40 years, every month for 3-7 days. Oddly, other goods that are considered in the same bracket as pads range from cars, to watches, and even tobacco.

That sanitary products are a necessity and not a luxury needn't be explained, especially given that there's absolutely nothing pleasurable about functioning in society while cramping and bleeding.

And speaking of functioning in society, the lack of access to affordable sanitary products has resulted in 23% girls dropping out of school in Indian villages. The girls who don't drop out miss an average of 5 days of school a month, roughly two months of school each year. Surely, that cannot help with keeping up with classes.

Most things 'women-oriented' – be it films or biological functions – continue to be taboo subjects

This data appears in a 2011 study called 'Sanitary Protection: Every Woman’s Health Right', collected by Nielsen and Plan India, and is the only credible study that maps India's menstrual consumption pattern.

That a study involving only 1,033 respondents and 151 gynaecologists, that too collected about six years ago, continues to be our sole point of reference is rather telling. Most things 'women-oriented' – be it films or biological functions – continue to be taboo subjects.

According to the study, of India's 355 million-strong menstruating population only 12% use sanitary napkins. It further states that over 70% women confess to not using pads due to pricing.

The lack of affordable hygienic options, coupled with socio-cultural baggage, results in over 88% of Indian women using rags, sand, or even ash to deal with menstruation. This can result in Reproductive Tract Infection (RTI), and, as shown in the recent Hindi film Phullu, it can prove to be fatal. Alarmingly, of the women who choose to use these unhygienic alternatives, the study says, RTI is 70% more common.

The government's responsibility

Four months ago, Congress MP Sushmita Dev started a Change.org petition to bring the tax on sanitary pads to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's notice. “Women are being taxed 12 months a year, for about 39 years on a process they have no control over. With the GST that is going to be implemented, a step needs be taken by the central government to make sanitary napkins tax free (like condoms and contraceptives) as it is an essential item which is a necessity for every woman,” the petition reads.

While the petition gained over 3,00,000 signatures, and even got a response from the Minister of Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi herself, the government has ruled that the GST will continue to apply to sanitary pads.

The tax 'amounts to 'discrimination on grounds… of sex', which is prohibited by Article 15(1)'

Absurdly though, the GST tax slab in effect starting 1 July, has exempted sindoor, bangles and bindis from being taxed. This, of course, stands in stark comparison with the 12% tax being levied on pads, quite clearly prioritising the societal demand from women to get married over their biological needs.

According to a LiveLaw article, a tax on sanitary items is unconstitutional. It argues that the tax “amounts to 'discrimination on grounds… of sex', which is prohibited by Article 15(1).”

“Sanitary pads, by definition, are used only by women. A tax on sanitary pads therefore amounts to a burden upon women. Or, to put it another way, but for being a (menstruating-age) woman, an individual would not be burdened by the sanitary pad tax. Under the classic definition, therefore, the tax discriminates on 'grounds of sex',” states the piece.

Top brands like Whisper and Stayfree sell at Rs 33-34 for a pack of 8 online

This is not to say that the centre or state governments haven't pushed for initiatives that make sanitary products more accessible, at least on paper. In 2016, the government sanctioned funds to provide pads for schoolgirls. However, the pads were priced at Rs 6 apiece, and no mention was made of the amount allocated for the initiative.

Interestingly, top brands like Whisper and Stayfree sell at Rs 33-34 for a pack of 8 online. This amounts to a little over Rs 4, which is still less than the government initiative price.

The centre, under PM Modi's Swachh Bharat Mission, has also promised sanitary pad dispensers and incinerators for disposal in public bathrooms.

However, none of these initiatives can serve our menstruating population en masse like a simple tax-exemption on sanitary napkins would.

First published: 22 June 2017, 22:07 IST
 
Durga M Sengupta @the_bongrel

Feminist and culturally displaced, Durga tries her best to live up to her overpowering name. She speaks four languages, by default, and has an unhealthy love for cheesy foods. Assistant Editor at Catch, Durga hopes to bring in a focus on gender politics and the role in plays in all our interactions.

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