12 November, 2019

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Are We Finally Done Taxing Aunty Flo?

By Nishtha Chadha

Nishtha Chadha

One of the most talked about election promises this week has been Sajith Premadasa’s promise to distribute free sanitary hygiene products. Labelling himself as a #padman, Premadasa tweeted that “until sustainable cost-effective alternatives are found” he promises to provide sanitary hygiene products free of charge.

Indeed, access to menstrual hygiene products is a serious problem in Sri Lanka, and has become a popular issue across political parties. In March this year, SLPP’s Namal Rajapaksa also tweeted about the issue, asking “What rationale could a Gov have to tax half it’s populace on a dire necessity? Is the Gov aware of studies on poor hygiene practices & cervical cancer?”

Taxing menstrual hygiene

Although 52% of Sri Lanka’s population is female, with approximately 4.2 million menstruating women, access to safe and affordable menstrual hygiene products remains somewhat of a luxury for many Sri Lankan women. A leading contributor to the unaffordability of menstrual hygiene products in Sri Lanka is the taxes levied on imported menstrual hygiene products. Sanitary napkins and tampons are taxed under the HS code HS 96190010 and the import tariff levied on these products is 62.6%.[1] Until September 2018, the tax on sanitary napkins was 101.2%. The components of this structure were Gen Duty (30%) + VAT (15%) + PAL (7.5%) + NBT (2%) and CESS (30% or Rs.300/kg).[2] In September 2018, following social media outrage against the exorbitant tax, the CESS component of this tax was repealed by the Minister of Finance.[3] Yet, despite the removal of the CESS levy, sanitary napkins and tampons continue to remain unaffordable and out of reach for the vast majority of Sri Lankan women.

Figure 1: Breakdown of taxation structure (before September 2018)

General Duty VAT PAL NBT CESS Total
30% 15% 7.5% 2% 30% or Rs.300/kg 101.2%

The average woman has her period for around 5 days and will use 4 pads a day[4]. Under the previous taxation scheme, this would cost a woman LKR 520 a month[5].  The estimated average monthly household income of the households in the poorest 20% in Sri Lanka is LKR 14,843[6]. To these households, the monthly cost of menstrual hygiene products would therefore make up 3.5% of their expenses. In comparison, the percentage of expenditure of this income category on clothing is around 4.4%.[7]

Internationally, repeals on menstrual hygiene product taxation are becoming increasingly common due to their proliferation of  gender inequality and the resulting unaffordability of essential care items, commonly known as ‘period poverty’.[8] Kenya was the first country to abolish sales tax for menstrual products in 2004 and countries including Australia, Canada, India, Ireland and Malaysia have all followed suit in recent years.[9]

The impact of unaffordability

The current cost of menstrual hygiene products in Sri Lanka has direct implications on girls’ education, health and employment.

According to a 2015 analysis of 720 adolescent girls and 282 female teachers in Kalutara district, 60% of parents refuse to send their girls to school during periods of menstruation.[10] Moreover, in a survey of adolescent Sri Lankan girls, slightly more than a third claimed to miss school because of menstruation.[11] When asked to explain why, 68% to 81% cited pain and physical discomfort and 23% to 40% cited fear of staining clothes.[12]

Source: Menstrual Hygiene Management In Schools In South Asia,  Wash Matters, 2018.

Inaccessibility of menstrual hygiene products also results in the use of makeshift, unhygienic replacements, which have direct implications on menstrual hygiene management (MHM). Poor MHM can result in serious reproductive tract infections. A study on cervical cancer risk factors in India, has found a direct link between the use of cloth during menstruation (a common substitute for sanitary napkins) and the development of cervical cancer[13]; the second-most common type of cancer among Sri Lankan women today.

The unaffordability of menstrual hygiene products is also proven to have direct consequences on women’s participation in the labor force. A study on apparel sector workers in Bangladesh found that providing subsidized menstrual hygiene products resulted in a drop in absenteeism of female workers and an increase in overall productivity.[14]

Towards a sustainable solution

If the Government is serious about finding sustainable solutions to the issues associated with unaffordability of menstrual hygiene products in Sri Lanka and promoting gender equality, it should be looking to slash the heavy import taxes currently levied on these products. Current taxation rates are keeping prices high and out of reach for a majority of Sri Lankan women. By reducing these rates, the cost of importing sanitary napkins and tampons will simultaneously decrease and stimulate competition in the industry, further driving prices down and encouraging innovation.

The conventional argument in favour of import tariffs is the protection of the local industry. However, in Sri Lanka, sanitary napkin exports only contribute a mere Rs. 25.16 million, or 0.001%, to total exports.[15] Increased market competition would also incentivise local manufacturers to innovate better quality products and ensure their prices remain competitive for consumers.

Other common concerns pertaining to the issue of low quality products potentially flooding the Sri Lankan market if taxation is reduced are unlikely to materialise, since quality standards are already imposed by the Sri Lankan government on imported products under SLS 111.

In addition, making these products more affordable would align with Sri Lanka’s commitment to Article 12(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which promotes the right of all individuals to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.[16] By keeping prices high, present taxation methods are contributing systematic obstruction of many women’s right to equal opportunity to enjoy the highest attainable level of health, and thereby do not meet the ratified standards of the ICESCR.

If menstrual hygiene products are made more affordable, it is likely that more Sri Lankan women will be able to uptake their use. Sri Lanka should thus remove the remaining import levies on menstrual hygiene products as soon as possible, via the means of an extraordinary gazette. Removing the PAL and General Duty components alone would bring taxation levels down by 43.9% to a total of 18.7%[17]. This would remove a significant barrier to girls education, women’s health and labour force participation, and create a wide-scale positive impact on closing Sri Lanka’s present gender gap and facilitating more inclusive economic growth. There has been a lot of rhetoric around keeping women safe and making them a priority this election – so what better place to start than this?

*Nishtha Chadha is a Research Intern at the Advocata Institute. Her research focuses on public policy, international relations and good governance. The opinions expressed are the author’s own views. They may not necessarily reflect the views of the Advocata Institute, its Board of Directors, its Research Fellows or its Advisors.


[1] “HS Code Finder / Sri Lanka Customs”. Customs.Gov.Lk, 2019, http://www.customs.gov.lk/business/hsfinder. Accessed 11 June 2019.

[2] Sri Lanka Customs. Tariff Guide 2019.03.15. Chapter 1: Section (6).

http://www.customs.gov.lk/tariffchanges/home. Accessed 14 Oct 2019.

“General duty = CIF value* customs duty rate

PAL (Port and Airport Development Levy) = CIF value * PAL rate

CESS levy = (value of the good +1 0%*value of the good) * CESS rate

Excise (Special provisions) duty = (value of the good + 15% of the value of the good + General Duty + CESS levy  + PAL levy ) * Excise duty rate

Value Added Tax = value of the good + (1+10% of the value of the good + General Duty + PAL levy + CESS levy + excise duty) *  VAT rate

Nation Building Tax = value of the good + 10% of the value of the good + General Duty + PAL levy + CESS levy + Excise duty) * NBT rate”

[3] “Sri Lanka Lifts Tax On Sanitary Napkins”. Economy Next, 2018, https://economynext.com/Sri_Lanka_lifts_tax_on_sanitary_napkins-3-11961.html. Accessed 11 June 2019.

[4] “A Woman’s Monthly Tax — Advocata Institute | Sri Lanka | Independent Policy Think Tank”. Advocata Institute | Sri Lanka | Independent Policy Think Tank, 2018, https://www.advocata.org/commentary-archives/2018/06/12/a-womans-monthly-tax.  Accessed 12 Oct 2019.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2016. http://www.statistics.gov.lk/HIES/HIES2016/HIES2016_FinalReport.pdf. Accessed 12 Oct 2019.

[7] Ibid.

[8]“Period Poverty: Everything You Need to Know”. Global Citizen, 2019. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/period-poverty-everything-you-need-to-know. Accessed 29 October 2019.

[9] “Goodbye, Tampon Tax (at Least for Some)”. New York Times, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/09/health/tampons-tax-periods-women.html. Accessed 29 October 2019.

[10] “Menstrual Hygiene Management In Schools In South Asia”. Wash Matters, 2018, https://washmatters.wateraid.org/sites/g/files/jkxoof256/files/WA_MHM_SNAPSHOT_SRILANKA.pdf . Accessed 11 June 2019.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Socio-demographic and behavioural risk factors for cervical cancer and knowledge, attitude and practice in rural and urban areas of North Bengal, India. Raychaudhuri S1, Mandal S. http://journal.waocp.org/article_26298_e73d70143926839642144a3724161d93.pdf. Accessed 12 Oct 2019.

[14] Hossain, Md Irfan, et al. “Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the HERhealth Model for Improving Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Knowledge and Access of Female Garment Factory Workers in Bangladesh.” (2017).

[15] Export Development Board Statistics, Export Database. (2018).

[16] Assembly, UN General. “International covenant on economic, social and cultural rights.” United Nations, Treaty Series 993.3 (1966).

[17] Calculations made by the Advocata Institute through the Tariff Calculator, Customs Department of Sri Lanka.

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Latest comments

  • 8
    1

    A person who is looking up to be a president showing concern about Womens’ Affairs below is commendable. Previous contestants were relatively old and they failed to look into young women’s need. This one of the reasons why youngsters should be elected as Presidents. NISTHA clarifies the trials and tribulations undergone by school girls very effectively. May be sanitary pads to school children may routed through schools with a guide to its disposal after use. Considerable problems are created by those living Condominium Apartments by disposing the pads via toilet commodes despite warnings.

    • 1
      2

      K. Anga,
      In a way, why this “pad” story hit the national media only through Sajith’s election promise is very curious b’cos the subject came up as a sinister media plot against Dr Shafi’s daughters during the post Easter bombing crisis. I wonder why nobody paid any attention to the widespread social problem associated with “pads” then! Instead, all racists tried to turn an innocent kind gesture of a school girl into part of a racial plot. Where was Nistha then?

      I never knew “pad” as an issue at all b’cos my wife or the daughter never made me know that such a problem ever existed; and never heard it from so many women activists including females active in the health sector either. I wonder how females manged to protect themselves & survive all these years until someone invented the pad. Now that it is clear that their is a health issue adversely affecting women particularly in low-income families, could the lack of class-consciousness be the reason that the subject never hit the press? Didn’t we have the first female PM & the first female president who probably knew about pads?

      In any case, my advise to Nistha is to go and see the recent Hindi comedy “Pad Man” before blaming taxes on pads. If there are enough brains in SL to design & produce fashionable male & female underwear, why is it so difficult to produce cheaper & cleaner pads? If SL brains are not capable of reverse engineering into such a simple product, how can this nation ever expect to gain anything from knowledge based industries? Plan to live forever on imports by exporting men & women of working age?

  • 5
    1

    All should know the realities of menstruation and related problems.

    https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/periods/

    Only then can those in power – governments – understand the importance of affordable menstrual hygiene products.
    In India and a few other countries, manufacture of female sanitary products are now a “cottage industry”.
    The government should encourage/commence such projects.

  • 4
    1

    It looks as though the writer has produced a thoughtful article with statistics etc, to backup her writing.

    Yes, this is an issue being debated even in advanced western countries.e.g. should such products be GST exempt.

    The question though is, how is SP going to fund all these freebies or is it just an election gimmick? Time will tell.

    • 7
      1

      gamini

      “The question though is, how is SP going to fund all these freebies”

      he says by cutting out waste.Good strategy if he can do it.at least we know the money is going towards a worthwile cause.Just imagine how much of freebies would have been possible if for example mihin lanka and srilankan airlines had been profitable.

    • 5
      1

      Srilanka spends billions on security Plus commissions (Bribes goes into hands of Politicians, during Mahinda regime it was shared within Family only). Srilanka do not need such a level expenditure. Even large countries do not spend such level of expenditure. Why do we need Buddha sasana and ministries for religions?

  • 11
    0

    good on you sajit.52% of the votes are now for you,unless gota says he will deliver it to their doorstep in white vans with no delivery expense.Then what will you do?

  • 6
    0

    This matter was overcome in certain areas in Chennai by a Volunteer, who developed
    the product and needed implements to turn out the material and product as a home
    Industry. I trust another woman journalist will make a search for the News as was
    published in Chenna sometime back and make contact with them.

    In this regard, I also pointed out elsewhere, how S.India saves its Elephant population
    from damaging farms etc and using corridors for their movement, by rearing honey bees strategically – worth a Study in Sri Lanka too?

  • 2
    5

    Fascinating stuff.
    540 times 5.2 Million..That is a whopping 3 Billion plus a year free hand out from Keselwatta Kid when he becomes the President..
    Will the Finance Minster Mangala Samare approve it because it is going to make a big hole in the Yahapalana Budgets from next year ?.

    But I must salute Keselwatta Kid for bringing this great relief to our menstrual inhabitant population.
    Even Dr Ranil acknowledged the greatness of Keselwatta Kid’s innovative politics.
    And Dr Ranil urged all Mothers and Sisters to vote for Keselwatta Kid at the UNP Rally yesterday. –

    But this article is more about the myriad of Taxes Mangala Samare has slapped on Sanitary Pads and Tampons.
    And the writer seems to be more interested in getting these Taxes removed than the free issue Kelwatta Kid’s Sanitary Pads.
    I can understand .

    I watched “Padman” both versions
    Hindian women make them in small Cottage Industry Units, established by that great Hindian Padman who really wanted to help the poor Hindian Village women who number probably 7 to 800 Million or more..

    I don’t think the ergonomics and the level of hygiene of them will be acceptable to our women who are in Dr Ranil’s UNP Faction.

    May be Dr Ranil being the great mind when it comes election times is going to do a double whammy, with Keselwatta Kid’s ground breaking Political innovation.

    Is Dr Ranil is planning to approve a Cottage Industry to make Hindian Style Sanitary Pads for Keslwatta Kid,s UNP Moms and Sisters?.

    And remove all those Taxes on White Lily sanitary Pads and Tampons for Dr Ranil’s Faction ?….

    • 4
      1

      KASmaalam K.A. Sumanasekera

      As usual are either going off on tangent or crab walking on sideways.
      Are you accusing the women for menstruating?
      The padman is an Indian simply because he has been doing something that is very important to the poor Dalit women unlike you stupid lazy a*******s talk Nato (No Action Talk Only) do nothing then blame the victims. Will you henceforth stop talking about Dalits and poor inhabitants.

      Padman Arunachalam Muruganantham is not educated a school drop out, however he not only reinvented a process but also new use for readily available local raw material. At the same time your Sisira invented new torture techniques with his old imported tools.

  • 0
    0

    Just wondering….
    \
    Are there any local manufactures..??
    /
    Is this tax component same for local manufactures also..??

  • 2
    0

    What Sajith should have promised on his election campaign is not giving free pads but to encourage and develop cottage industries to manufacture such products at a considerably low price! Giving anything free will not do any good to the country but will add to the debt burden of the government!

    • 3
      4

      Ruwan
      What is wrong with giving out an essential item to those that can’t afford it? Particularly after having read the above article and seeing for yourself the implications of not having adequate sanitary products.
      Medicare in is free in Sri Lanka, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who is sick will go and scrounge for free medicine all the time.
      It is an option to those that cannot afford it.
      There is nothing for you to ponder or concern yourself with and consider the modus operandi of how and why Sajith should have done this.
      What Sajith is offering is a relief to those in need. I think it is very considerate of him. That is the way a leader must operate. Love and protect innocent citizens.
      Anyone who thinks otherwise does not belong in the civilised society.
      I suggest such selfish animals to go back to the jungles where they crept out of. I hope you get my point.

      • 2
        1

        Do the math. Sajith is promising freebees left and right. He will drive us in to bankruptcy if he intend on delivering these promises.

        Because of these undeliverable promises UNPers are torn left and right. Maybe it’s time they vote for a alternative candidate. To show that people are done with the party loyalty system.

        • 1
          0

          Greshan
          I am sure if the ruling elite can cut some of their excesses, there will be much more to go around to the poor people.
          Obviously the average mindset would rather applaud those driving super luxury cars etc than let a fellow poor person get a drop of water for free.
          This cussed attitude is the root cause of many wrongs without solution in Sri Lanka.

      • 0
        0

        As a presidential candidate Sajith should think of the country not individual requirements! we need to know his vision for the country as the presidential candidate! We need to know how we could get out of the huge debt burden created by the two main parties who have been running the country. There are many other critical needs of the masses than sanitary pads for women! There are extremely poor people who have only 1 meal a day! you can survive without sanitary pads but not without food on the table!

  • 0
    0

    I think some foreign company wants to introduce it. So, mangala and Sajith are selling it. I am sure, they are laughing at Srilankans saying Dummies.

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