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Inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and education, or otherwise known as period poverty, is not a phenomenon that only affects the developing world but is an issue that women and girls globally are contending with. However, the consequences of period poverty are far more severe in the developing world, especially in nations that have large socio-economic disparities.
In emerging economies such as Sri Lanka, whose pace of development is calculated on infrastructural growth and macro development, socioeconomic aspects often fall through the cracks of the process, especially those related to period poverty. Hence it is essential when discussing sustainable development and gender equity that a country’s calculation of growth factors beyond just the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Indicators such as the Human Development Index are more holistic ways of gauging a country’s progress because it factors in life expectancy, access to education and Gross National Income per capita.
In the case of Sri Lanka, period poverty is attributable to three aspects: inaccessibility to low cost feminine hygiene products, unavailability of effective educational tools to teach menstrual hygiene and lack of infrastructure to address these specific needs.
Inaccessibility of low cost feminine hygiene products
Whether it be disposable sanitary pads, reusable pads, menstrual cups or tampons that one prefers as a menstrual management method (feminine hygiene product), women’s ability to access these products should not be hindered, especially by the State. The common consensus in Sri Lanka is that majority of women and girls depend on disposal sanitary pads and cloth, with a very small population opting to other alternations such as moon cups and tampons.
The problem lies in the fact that sanitary pads are often considered a semi-luxury product, making it inaccessible to the majority of women and girls in the country. Prior to September 26 2018, sanitary pads were taxed 101.2 per cent. Following the removal of certain tariffs, the tax fell to 62.60 per cent and to a further 52 per cent following the VAT reform. Although one may argue that taxation has fallen making it more accessible, reality of the situation is that 52 per cent is still too high. Amid the many attempts made by multiple women’s groups and activists in relation to taxation of sanitary pads, the 75th budget recently presented to parliament showed a lack of gender sensitivity when no attempt was made to address this women’s health issue.
The fact remains that sanitary pads are essential and therefore should not be taxed, especially when other essential items such as dhal, canned fish and sugar are given tax releases. This clearly indicates that concerns related to the majority of the population – women – are not a priority in a parliament with 95 per cent of policymakers being male representatives.
On average a girl uses between 12 to 15 pads for a cycle of four to five days using between three to four pads per day every month, therefore approximately 1.5 packets of sanitary pads per menstrual cycle. A household with three female members of reproductive age may use up to four to five packets a month costing them on average Rs. 500 to 625 (Rs. 125 per packet). In a low income family, when given the choice, they would opt to prioritise buying rations over feminine hygiene products. When they do buy sanitary pads, it may not be enough causing female members to wear the same napkin longer due to its scarcity, which make them vulnerable to health and reproductive health issues.
Poor sanitary hygiene increases the bacterial flora in the genital area predisposing them to bacterial vaginosia, fungal infections and urinary tract infections. Lack of menstrual hygiene has been identified as a risk factor for developing cervical cancer; when women and girls do not have access to sanitary napkins, they depend on unhygienic replacements such as old cloth. The health cost related to period poverty is as important as the social and economic burden that is often highlighted.
Taxation on an essential hygiene product will become a health issue with socioeconomic impacts if not addressed in time.
Effective educational tools
The high literacy rate of 91.7 per cent in Sri Lanka is often a statistic used with much pride. While this clearly indicates the successful implementation of the free education policy ratified in 1945, the real question lies in how much of it focuses on essential life skills such as a comprehensive reproductive health education. A survey conducted by the Family Health Bureau revealed that Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) related knowledge among youth in Sri Lana was not satisfactory with nearly 50 per cent being unaware about most aspects of basic physiology and common SRH issues. In most schools, especially co-ed ones, subject matter such as menstruation and menstrual hygiene is rarely discussed. The stigma and shame placed on menstruation is so high that teachers overlook chapters related to SRH, further reinforcing these negative notions. The common consensus is that menstruation and menstrual hygiene are women’s concerns and a burden borne by women when it is actually a health issue and, if not dealt with properly in a timely manner, will become an economic burden.
The lack of proper Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WaSH) facilities within school premises, workplaces and general public acts as a strong deterrent for women and girls to engage in normal daily activities including going to school or work during their period. These include the lack of a facility to dispose sanitary pads, privacy to wash and change feminine hygiene products and functioning WaSH facilities for washing hands. Due to the lack of these very basic requirements, absenteeism is almost normalised within schools and workplaces amongst women and girls. Sri Lanka’s has had less than 35 per cent of women engaging in the formal economy for the past two decades; one of the contributors to this extremely low figure is the lack of these basic facilities. It is essential that workplaces, whether it be the public or private sector, create a conducive environment because this will automatically encourage more women to engage in the formal economy.
Similarly, girlchild absenteeism is extremely common in schools. In 2018 the Health Promotion Bureau revealed that 25.1 per cent of schools across the country did not have enough toilet facilities; one can only imagine the plight of girl-friendly latrines, or the lack of, in schools in the rural and estate sector. The effect of the lack of girl-friendly latrines is especially high during the annual sports meet season or when students have extracurricular activities after school since the lack of these basic facilities forces them to opt out of participating rather than risking an uncomfortable situation.
The lack of access to adequate sanitary facilities has been identified as one of the main barriers women and girls face, whether it be in the workplace or at school. Making feminine hygiene products economically inaccessible further deteriorates the already low engagement of women in the formal economy and in education.
A step towards gender sensitive budgetary proposals would reflect lifting such barriers and taking action to stop the passing of inhibitive budgetary reforms for women and girls. Fifty two per cent of the country’s population is female of which almost 30 per cent consist of menstruating women. The right to overcome period poverty should involve women in making these policy decisions and it should not left to a parliament that constitutes 95 per cent of male representatives.
A woman’s ability to access feminine hygiene products shouldn’t be hindered by the government. Hence it is our duty to continue the discourse on period poverty until Sri Lanka sees progressive positive change because development must be both sustainable and inclusive.