For most of her life, Kamal Rahirashi has had just enough to get by — and sometimes not even that. When her income was limited, a lot of personal needs took a backseat, including the need for personal hygiene and health products.
“We didn’t even get sanitary napkins in shops where I come from; but even if we did, I wouldn’t be able to afford them,” says Kamal, who was raised in a small hamlet about 120 kilometers from the metropolitan city of Mumbai. “It was something only the really privileged and rich women used."
She hopes things will be different for her teenage daughter.
However, that's unlikely. Last month, the Indian government rolled out a new tax plan — the Goods and Service Tax (GST) — labeling sanitary products "nonessential," making them eligible for a 12 percent tax.
The increase in the cost of sanitary napkins has forced Kamal, 34, who is a house cleaner in Mumbai and already living on an extremely tight budget, to reconsider her family's usage. At a rate of 8 rupees per pad (13 cents), and on a paltry salary of 10,000 rupees per month ($150), it's not an easy expense to bear. “I will continue to provide for my daughter’s needs, but I will have to go back to using the cloth,” says a disappointed Kamal. Kamal has suffered from vaginal infections in the past that are caused by poor menstrual care.
Only 12 percent of Indian women have access to sanitary products. This number also largely reflects the realities of urban India. Women who live in the rural part of the country, about 75 percent of India’s female population, have far less access to affordable hygiene products.
Most women use old cloth; others, who are even less fortunate, use leaves and dung cakes to soak menstrual blood. Kamal, who is going back to using cloth, says every piece of cloth is reused several times before being disposed of. Since her infections, she has made it a point to wash the cloth with antiseptic soap after every use, but she still uses it for four to six months before disposing of it.
Prioritizing women’s needs
Mumbai-based women’s organization SheSays has led a campaign against the new tax, using the social media hashtag #LahuKaLagaan, which literally translates as "blood tax."
“Sanitary napkins are used by girls/women to hygienically address a bodily function of which they have no control. It would be unreasonable to tax them on such products,” says Sudarshan Mohta, head of legal research at SheSays. “Our argument is to declare sanitary napkins as an essential commodity and with that regards introduce a price ceiling and also remove the tax."
Others on social media agreed. “Women menstruate without choice. Remove taxes on pads in India!” one tweet read. “Menstrual hygiene is every women’s right. 12% #GST on sanitary napkins amounts to an injustice. Tax-free status necessary,” Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of the state of Kerala added.
Incidentally, the new tax system does classify another women’s product as “essential" and makes it entirely tax-free. Sindoor, the bright red cosmetic powder married Hindu women wear, and bangles are now tax-exempt — raising serious questions about whether the government truly understands what women need.
The irony wasn’t lost on the public who protested the government's tax decisions.
“I would like to ask the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is he aware of how many Indian women use sindoor? But every single women could benefit from the use of the sanitary pads,” an upset Kamal says.
The SheSays team filed a lawsuit in the Bombay High Court, asking for an injunction on taxes for menstrual hygiene products. The suit also goes further, asking the court to order the government to implement schemes for providing low-cost sanitary napkins and promoting menstrual hygiene. It also asks the court to order the government to set up sanitary product vending and disposal machines in rural areas.
Several existing schemes include provisions for free sanitary pads for girls in government schools, but haven't ever been fully implemented. Studies conducted by governmental and nongovernmental groups have repeatedly shown that lack of sanitation and menstrual hygiene have forced young girls to drop out of school, and often restrict women’s participation in the workforce.
“We promote campaigns such as Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao, but we do not account for the other necessities in the transition from girl to woman,” says Mohta, referring to Modi’s project to educate girls. “The very word [menstruate] is a taboo. ... Amidst all this, we expect Indian women to live with dignity by making them resort to unhygienic and unsafe alternatives."
SheSays hopes its campaign will yield tangible outcomes. “The introduction of GST only makes it far from reality for those who belong to economically lower groups to afford basic sanitary care, and that is one of the points we have pressed on in our [lawsuit],” says Mohta.
Another parallel campaign is being led by Member of Parliament Sushmita Dev. “Women are being taxed 12 months a year for about 39 years on a process they have no control over. How is that fair?” Dev told Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, to roaring response from women across the country.
Even though Dev managed to secure nearly 200,000 signatures from women across India who are opposed to the tax, their appeals fell on deaf years. In a meeting with Dev, Jaitely reportedly told her he was concerned over “the loss that the exchequer would incur if the tax on commercially produced sanitary pads was to be reduced or the tax on environment-friendly ones to be abolished.”
The government has defended its position, saying the new tax actually reduces an earlier tax imposed on hygiene products. “The tax incidence on this item before and after GST is the same or less,” a statement from the Finance Ministry claimed. The cumulative tax on hygiene products in the past, according to the government, was 13.68 percent.
Further, the government claimed that because the raw material used to manufacture sanitary pads have new, increased taxes, it is imperative to impose the new tax on the finished product. Otherwise, the government argues, businesses would be unable to claim credits for their taxes paid, leading to higher prices. Since its election in 2014, the government led by Narendra Modi has increasingly focused on boosting capabilities of local producers through its Make in India campaign.
However, activists say, the government ignored that products made for low-income buyers are typically made from different, lower-taxed raw materials.
And, they say the government could reduce taxes on menstrual products. “The goods exempted under the GST [such as bindi, bangles and condoms] are also made from raw materials and are not naturally available as finished products. If the government has managed to make an exception for certain items, they need to make an exception for other [more necessary] items as well,” Mohta reasons.
Interestingly, the campaign against the tax isn’t isolated to Indian women. Last year, women’s rights activists in the US started a campaign against a similar tax on sanitary products, referred to as the tampon tax. Cristina Garcia, an assemblywoman from California, calculated that women in her state paid close to $7 per month for 40 years of tampons and sanitary napkins, totaling over $20 million annually in taxes. She proposed not just eliminating the tax on tampons, but proposed to replace the lost revenue by increasing taxes on liquor, because “there is no happy hour for menstruation.”
Despite the distances, Kamal found deep solidarity in Garcia’s words. Having supported a recovering alcoholic for a husband, Kamal said the Indian government could make a lot more taxing alcohol and cigarettes.
“This won’t affect the rich who make a lot more than I do. Why should I I be taxed for wanting a better life, even in poverty,” she adds.