I would have never discovered that sanitary pads and tampons get taxed quite heavily in Bhutan had India not scrapped its 12 percent goods and services tax (GST) on sanitary pads in July this year. India isn’t the only one; Australia will stop taxing tampons, pads and other feminine hygiene products beginning January 2019. There are other countries that have done this as well over the last several years due to gender equality and economic pressure.
Bhutan levies a 5 percent sales tax on sanitary pads imported from India, and a 30 percent import duty plus 5 percent sales tax on sanitary pads and tampons imported from other countries (mostly from Thailand and countries that Bhutan does not have a Free Trade Agreement with). I buy both tampons and sanitary napkins. I usually buy sanitary napkins from India so I am paying the maximum retail price (MRP), but my tampons are expensive.
What would cost 172 ngultrum for a box of 8 tampons (about $2.4) in Thailand costs 240 ngultrum ($3.4) in Thimphu, which is almost the price of a box of 16 tampons in Thailand. The tampon boxes and sanitary pads from countries other than India hardly come with their MRP. A box of tampons may not appear to cost much at first glance, especially to men who draw up these fiscal policies, so allow me to calculate how much an average Bhutanese woman could be spending on sanitary pads in one lifetime to put things into perspective.
A woman menstruates roughly between the ages of 13 and 50. She has an average of 360 periods over the course of about 30 years of her life. Even if she were to buy the cheapest sanitary napkin in the Bhutanese market, a packet of seven pads costs 25 ngultrum ($0.35). Pads need to be changed a minimum of four times over 24 hours if the period is light, more if the period is heavy. The cost of a normal menstruation cycle of five days a month: Four pads multiplied by five days adds up to 20 pads per cycle, times 360 periods, which ends up at roughly 7,200 pads. This will cost her about 25,700 ngultrum ($361.9) for 1,028 regular pads used over the course of her entire menstruating life. This is calculating the bare minimum. It will be more if other pads and tampons are considered. Imagine having to buy pads if you are a student or a housewife and come from single income home living on a national minimum wage of 215 ngultrum ($3) per day. What do you think will be the priority?
Bhutan experiences period poverty, too. Not every Bhutanese girl and woman can afford pads, especially in the rural parts of Bhutan and even among the urban poor. There has been no research or study to demonstrate this statistically yet, but according to a report by WaterAid and UNICEF, more than a third of girls in South Asia miss school during their periods due to a lack of toilets or pads. Period poverty cannot not be an issue in Bhutan otherwise the new government Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa would never have promised free sanitary napkins to all school-going girls in their manifesto. The Education Ministry under the former government would not have launched a nationwide menstrual hygiene campaign this year, with the former Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay himself endorsing and promoting it.
It is heartening that there is political goodwill, and the new Health Minister Dechen Wangmo — the only female minister in the government and the country’s second female minister ever — tells me she is serious about making menstrual hygiene facilities as accessible as possible. But the big problem lies with Bhutan’s fiscal policy. It is discriminatory. Just like everywhere else in the world.
Condoms are listed under hygienic and pharmaceutical articles that are zero-rated. No duty or tax is levied on such items. Even sex enhancement drugs like Viagra are levied an import duty of only 10 percent and no tax. Contrast this to the 5 percent sales tax and 30 percent import duty on sanitary pads that are listed under miscellaneous articles, and tell me you think this is fair? Menstruation is a health issue; sex isn’t. Menstruation is not a choice; sex is.
The debate on pads is always divided along gender lines no matter where it happens in the world. Many men argue pads are not a necessity while women counter-argue that they are. Maybe such men need to see us paint the town red, literally. If men were to bleed, it would be a completely different fiscal order. Women like me would not have to write opinion pieces and petitions calling for the removal of the “blood tax,” as they call it in India.
Half the population of the country needs (not wants) menstrual hygiene products for three decades of their lives. Unlike other countries in the world, all sanitary pads and tampons are imported. Bhutan does not produce these items yet. While the new government’s intent to provide free sanitary napkins to all school-going girls is applause-worthy, it would receive a standing ovation if the rest of the menstruating population were also made to feel like we aren’t being both exploited and punished for something beyond our control.
Let’s remove these sexist taxes on pads and tampons and make menstrual hygiene a part of every girl and woman’s life!