By Apoorva Mandhani
The Goods and Services Tax regime has, since its inception, been viewed as a revolutionary idea which will benefit all. However, the recent revelation of GST rates by the council has left much to be desired for women across the country.
The council places sanitary towels in the second tax slab at twelve percent, instead of the tax-exempted slab which, in Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s words, is reserved for the “aam aadmi” (common man’s) items. Exclusion of sanitary towels from this bracket reinforces the belief that sanitary pads are still not considered an essential commodity by the government.
Taxing women for being women
The underlying issue here is that women are being taxed every month, over a period of roughly 39 years, for a normal bodily function they have no control over. According to a recent study, out of the 355 million women in India who menstruate, only 12% even have access and the monetary freedom to be able to buy sanitary pads. It has further been argued that a tax on sanitary napkins only burdens women so, therefore, contradicts Article 15(1) of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits “discrimination on grounds of sex”. Despite such assertions, sanitary napkins have been shoved into a category that also houses items such as sports goods, toys, artefacts and collector’s items.
Moreover, when Congress MP Ms Sushmita Dev filed an online petition for abolishing taxes on menstrual hygiene products, she was reportedly asked by Mr Jaitley if she had considered the burden of such an exemption on the exchequer. This argument has since been discarded, after weighing it alongside the tax exemption provided to the $30 billion market for products that are attributed to organising religious sermons, ceremonies, and rituals. Besides, Ms Dev’s petition, which went online in March to commemorate International Women’s Day, calls for tax exemptions on environmentally friendly pads only. The market reach of such smaller players, however, remains limited due to production, distribution and marketing constraints. Therefore, without sufficient marketing and support from the Government, getting these products into the mainstream market will take longer.
Similar campaigns have recently been launched in a number of countries to demand the removal of tax on tampons and sanitary towels. While Kenya was the first to abolish sales tax for menstrual products, in Ireland, tampons and panty liners are zero-rated for VAT, as the rate was in place prior to EU legislation imposing minimum rates. Canadian revolution has been recent, having removed its tampon tax in mid-2015 following an online petition signed by thousands.
Furthermore, the UK’s “tampon tax” has been in the news for years now. While, in 2016, the then Prime Minister David Cameron had shown signs of yielding to sustained media scrutiny and protests, the amendments in this regard have since been stalled due to complications following Brexit. The revenue collected from the so-called tampon tax has been marked for women’s’ charities. This has been considered equally galling. The simultaneous uproar around the world, however, demonstrates that women’s reproductive rights are at the forefront of political and social issues in this day and age. Assertions are now being made that a tax on pads, tampons and other such products actually lead to economic inefficiency and welfare loss, due to decreased consumption of such goods.
“I have to tell you, I have no idea why states would tax these as luxury items. I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.” This was how former President of the United States Barack Obama responded to a query from YouTube sensation Ingrid Nilsen when she asked him the reason why tampons and pads are taxed as luxury items. The statement lays bare the fact that menstruation still remains one of the most whispered-about issues in world culture and politics. This is, however, gradually changing with the realisation that effectively tackling menstruation taboos and achieving good menstrual hygiene practices requires a multifaceted approach.
From awareness-raising hashtag campaigns such as #TheHomelessPeriod, #HappyToBleed and #FreeTheTampons, to a Change.org petition to lift the tampon tax, periods are having a moment all around the world. 20-year-old Arushi Dua even took to asking Mark Zuckerberg to launch an “On my period” button on Facebook to help fight menstrual stigmas in India. Removal of such a tax holds the potential to address the wider and more burning issue of ensuring menstrual hygiene as a human right.
Featured Image Source: LiveLaw
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