Let’s talk about period poverty | Daily FT

A mere three years ago, when then presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa openly discussed the necessity to reduce the prices of female menstrual products, he was ridiculed by a wide spectrum of individuals which unfortunately included women. Premadasa announced that he would distribute sanitary pads free of charge to women and was mockingly called the ‘Pad Man’ by his political opponents. 

This was a reference to a Hindi movie which was based on real life events. In India, Arunachalam Muruganantham from Tamil Nadu is today hailed as a hero, social activist and entrepreneur for pioneering the manufacture of low-cost sanitary products for women. He also initiated a distribution scheme to popularise the concept among rural women of India. As with many social issues, Sri Lanka lags behind not only developed countries but many developing countries such as India.

Period poverty, defined as a lack of access to menstrual products, hygiene facilities, waste management, and education, affects many women causing physical, mental, and emotional challenges. The stigma that shrouds menstruation further prevents individuals from talking about it. Period poverty like other forms of poverty can be debilitating, humiliating and degrading to individuals. It can take different forms and has emotional, physical, and mental health effects on persons.

Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka there is less than 5% of representation for women in Parliament where the issue of period poverty is considered solely a female problem. A report published in March this year by the Advocata Institute noted that over 50% of women in the country experience period poverty; indicating that 50% of households with women of menstruating age do not report spending any money on sanitary napkins. At present, sanitary products in Sri Lanka are taxed at 52%, making pads and other menstrual hygiene products unaffordable for women in low-income groups of society. The situation has been further exacerbated by the rising cost of living with consumer inflation being recorded over 70% in the month of August.

Despite numerous calls to reduce if not completely abolish taxes on sanitary products, this has not happened. Some argue that the taxes on imported products are kept high in order to increase domestic production. There is little evidence of such a domestic production being increased to supply the necessary products at a cheaper rate. The economic arguments for keeping taxes in place are nullified when considering the economic cost of such policies. Working women, mostly in labour intensive sectors such as the plantations and the apparel sectors, miss out on work due to the lack of hygiene products during menstruation and girl children miss out on days of schooling due to the same reason. The overall loss of productivity, costs due to increased health risks and failures in female education outweigh the marginal income from taxing imported sanitary products.  

The fact that there is now an open discussion about his matter is welcome. It is a long way from just three years ago when the issue was considered taboo and subject for ridicule and mockery. However, the time has come for action rather than further discussion. Period poverty may be experienced by women, but it affects the whole society and the overall economy. It should therefore not be considered solely a ‘women’s issue.’ The necessary measures, especially in the economic, healthcare and education spheres can be taken immediately if there is a will. It is a sound policy that cannot and should not be delayed any further.