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Why tax our blood?

Why tax our blood?
Our government has spoken. Female lives don't matter. While rapes continue in different parts of India, we can't even have the right to health and hygiene! It is a great time to be showing off your married-ness though the many 'saas-bahu' serials. After all, the government has found more sense in making 'sindoor' (a symbol displayed by a married woman) tax-free but not the essential sanitary napkin.

Several campaigns led by famous icons from different fields didn't make a dent. A change.org petition started by Congress MP Sushmita Dev received over 3 lakh signatures. #LahuKaLagaan campaign launched by the NGO, she says, had celebrities such as Gul Panag, Cyrus Broacha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Vishal Dadlani, among others, vociferously demand that sanitary napkins be exempted from tax. The call, however, didn't cull favour with the GST Council that has levied 12 per cent tax on the essential hygiene product; similar to smartphones, medical devices, real estate air travel by business or first class. In comparison, not only the 'sindoor', even 'kum kum', 'bindi', bangles, 'alta', among other products, are exempt from tax. Go figure.

As if the pain and discomfort of going through a menstrual cycle aren't enough, the government continues to impose an additional financial burden on women—a step which is both cruel and myopic. Isn't it committed to the Swachh Bharat initiative? So how is it that basic hygiene that should be the right of every woman doesn't feature high on the government's priority list? We want our women to defecate in toilets instead of wheat fields (thank god for that!) but we won't teach them to replace the humble cloth with more hygienic methods of dealing with menstruation?

Are we also to view this heartless measure as lack of female representation in GST Council? After all, the top echelons of the GST Council do not have female representation. It comprises of the Union Minister of State (MoS) in-charge in Revenue, Finance Ministers of individual states, with Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley as Chairman and Head. None of them is a woman, pointing to the stark lack of representation. Who voiced our demands and represented us? No one!

Sanitary napkins are not a luxury product, and only the Kerala and Delhi governments seem to have recognised this fact. Delhi has slashed tax to 5 per cent on napkin packets that cost over Rs 20 while the Kerala government has undertaken the responsibility of distributing sanitary napkins to schoolgirls across the state. The Central government, of course, shirks all responsibility calling it a tax-burden.

In developed and developing economies, the debate is on the usage of sanitary napkins versus tampons. It's not about using menstrual products during the period but rather the choice of product. 2 per cent of China's women use tampons, around 64 per cent use pads. In the US, 42 per cent use tampons compared to 62 per cent using pads. All the women in Singapore and Japan, and 88 per cent in Indonesia use sanitary napkins; recent numbers would be an improvement. The fact is that a majority of the female population in all these nations has access to better hygiene.

In India however, only 12 per cent of the country's 355 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins, as per a 2011 report by the erstwhile AC Nielsen. And let's not be fooled that this is out of choice. Over 70 per cent can't afford the sanitary napkin and around 88 per cent resort to dry leaves, sand, ash husk and newspapers. Can you even imagine this? 70 per cent of these women contract Reproductive Tract Infection. Reports suggest that lack of menstrual hygiene leads to 23 per cent of adolescent girls dropping out of school. 97 per cent of surveyed gynaecologists believe that using pads reduces chances of Reproductive Tract Infection and cervical cancer. Even if we call this report dated, let's look at the argument from the other side.

As per the more recent National Family Health Survey 4 (NFHS) for 2015-'16, around 6 out of 10 women used menstrual products. 78 per cent urban women and 48 per cent rural women used sanitary pads. These figures, if assumed to be correct, show a positive trend in the usage of menstrual products. It also bears testimony to the efficacy of the Union Health Ministry's Rs 150-crore scheme launched in 2012 aimed at spreading the access of subsidised sanitary napkins among young rural girls. So why then would the Centre puncture its initiative instead of strengthening it further by leaving sanitary napkins out of the tax ambit altogether?

An average woman will use anywhere between 11,000-17,000 napkins in her lifetime. So of course, there is greater awareness also building up towards moving to environment-friendly menstrual products such as reusable cloth and menstrual cups. But for a country that is screaming for better healthcare for women, and a government that is committed to a Swachh Bharat, surely making women bleed further is far from staying true to the cause.

(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are strictly personal.)

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