‘No VAT on Pad’ protests prompt Bangladesh government to remove proposed tax

In June 2019, activists in Nigeria demonstrated over their government's intention to reinstate a tax on sanitary pads in the 2019/2020 budget. Last year, amidst protests, India removed a controversial tax on sanitary pads, which was introduced in 2017. Now, Bangladesh joins the global debate on period poverty.

Recent protests called for a halt to the proposed 40 percent value-added tax (VAT) and supplementary duties on imported raw materials of sanitary napkins in the country's new budget. Locally made pads are already subject to a 15 percent Value Added Tax (VAT) on the shelf price, so additional taxes on the imported ingredients would make these products out of reach for many — even those already using hygienic disposable pads.

Amidst calls to break the silence and widespread use of the slogan “No VAT on Pad”, the Bangladesh government, in an unprecedented move, scrapped the proposed tax hike on feminine products — but that doesn't mean they are now affordable for women in Bangladesh.

The period taboo

In rural Bangladesh, women's periods are still a taboo subject. Because menstruation is deemed impure, this imposes many restrictions on what women can do and where they can go. Even women who can afford these products rarely buy them at regular shops, mostly out of embarrassment.

According to 2014 Bangladesh National Hygiene Baseline Survey, during their menstruation cycle, 40 percent of girls miss school, for a median of three days a month.

Many girls miss school during their period. Photo by Firoze Ahmed, via Demotix.

Prohibitive costs

According to a report by the non-profit SNV Bangladesh, over 89 per cent of Bangladesh's 78.4 million women still use old clothes or rags, as many cannot afford disposable sanitary napkins.

The annual market worth of the sanitary napkin industry (including adult diapers) in Bangladesh is around 3 billion Taka (US $35.5 million), 90 percent of which is supplied by local manufacturers. The per-packet price of sanitary napkins is 100-160 Taka (US $1.25-$2), so many in rural areas cannot afford them.

The cost of pads has remained high because of the need to pay existing customs and regulatory duties on the foreign-sourced raw materials needed for local assembly.

According to some manufacturers, the scrapping of the proposed increase in tax, however, won't impact the current price. If the 15 percent value-added tax at the shelves is scrapped, manufacturers say, then the price will come down.

Old clothes or rags as alternatives

Many women are not aware of the health risks of reusing old clothes instead of sanitary napkins. The 2014 National Hygiene Survey discovered that embarrassment and lack of affordability contribute to women resorting to reusing rags and other available alternatives.

Noting that the use of rags instead of pads increases women's health risk, Facebook user Shamima Islam explained that 73 percent of Bangladeshi women suffer from urinary tract and vaginal infections — which can lead to cancer — all because of a lack of menstrual hygiene.

On Facebook, Shahriar Shuvo recommended not only getting rid of the tax, but also introducing subsidies for sanitary napkins:

এদেশে এমপি – মন্ত্রীদের জন্য শুল্কমুক্ত গাড়ী আনার সুবিধা রাখা হয় আর অতিরিক্ত ৪০% ভ্যাট ধরা হয় নারীদের জন্য প্রয়োজনীয় স্যানিটারি ন্যাপকিনের উপর ।
শুধু ভ্যাট প্রত্যাহারই নয় স্যানিটারি ন্যাপকিন সহজলভ্য করনে এর উপর ভর্তুকির দাবি জানাচ্ছি ।

We have duty-free car facilities for our ministers and members of parliament. However, we impose 40 percent tax/VAT on essential menstrual hygiene products for women.

Not only should the taxes be scrapped, I demand subsidies for these products to make them affordable to most women.

Different sections of people also went offline and took to the streets to protest. Here in this video, a small section of university students are seen protesting the increase, forming a human chain in Dhaka's Shahbag area:

Bangladeshi doctor, Sakia Haque, who traveled to all 64 districts of the country raising awareness about reproductive health and hygiene among schoolgirls, commented on the issue:

সারা দেশে যে বলে আসলাম,মিন্সট্রেশনের সময় স্যানিটারি প্যাড ইউজ করবা, unhygienic কাপড় না।।
এখন কিভাবে মুখ দেখাব?
যাদের মাসে আয় ২০০০-৩০০০টাকা, তাদের কাছে আগেই প্যাড কিনা বিলাসিতা ছিল! আর এখন? […]

[During my travels] I requested that every girl should use disposable sanitary pads instead of unhygienic cloths during menstruation. What can I say to them now?

For those who were earning a mere 2,000-3,000 Bangladeshi Takas (US $25-$38) per month, disposable pads were a luxury. And now?

On a feminist website called Nari (Women), Puspita Mondol shared a story about visiting a childhood friend in the Ashulia township near the capital, Dhaka:

২০০৯ সালের কথা। আশুলিয়ায় গেলাম ছোটবেলার বান্ধবীর বাসায়। ও আর ওর বর হামিম গার্মেন্টসে জব করতো। আমার পিরিয়ডের ডেইট মনে ছিলো না এবং হঠ্যাৎ পিরিয়ড হয়। কিন্তু ওর কাছে প্যাড নেই, সেপ্যাড ইউজ করে না। আমরা দু'জন ওর বাসা থেকে বের হয়ে রাস্তায় গেলাম। ছোটো ছোটো বেশ কয়টা ফার্মেসী পেলাম। কিন্তু কোথাও কোন প্যাড নেই। বলে কেউ কিনে না, তাই রাখি না। আমি এতো অবাক হয়েছিলাম! এতো এতো মেয়ে কাজ করে এখানকার গার্মেন্টসগুলোতে আর কেউ প্যাড ব্যবহার করে না! কারণ কী? কতো আর বেতন পায় যারা গার্মেন্টেসে কাজ করে?

She (my friend) worked in a ready-made garment factory along with her husband. I realized it was the time for my period and I did not have sanitary pads with me. I asked her and she said that she doesn't use (disposable) sanitary pads. So we went out to buy these. Usually, these are available in local pharmacies. I went to several pharmacies, and they didn't have sanitary napkins on their shelves. The shopkeepers told me that they don't keep the product on the shelves as (almost) no one buys them. I was immensely surprised as this is an industrial area where many women work. Nobody uses (disposable) pads! Maybe because of the high price, these workers cannot afford them and want to save money.

Part of the challenge in making feminine products accessible is changing cultural norms. For women to realize their right to affordable supplies in order to stay healthy, menstruation must be seen as natural and normal. In an op-ed in the Daily Prothom Alo, Mohammad Syed Bin Abdullah, a law student at Dhaka University, said that a civil awareness movement is what's needed to make the government keep the cost of supplies down, so that feminine hygiene product will finally be affordable for all Bangladeshi women.

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