Developing countries often share certain characteristics. They generally have high and growing populations, and struggle with poor governance, education and infrastructure that inhibit development. They also typically have a low tax base with relatively few paying income tax, so governments turn to indirect taxation on the sale of goods and services to raise the revenues they need.
In the last few months India's attempts to simplify its famously complex tax system by replacing various state-level levies with a single Goods and Services Tax (GST) has generated much debate. While the Economist argues that it might inadvertently contribute to a widening gap between relatively rich and poor states, one element in particular of the new tax has divided opinion: GST has been set at 12% on sanitary pads.
India should be finding ways to encourage and increase the participation of women in the workforce, and not to penalise them for an entirely natural bodily function.
Critics argue that it is wrong to zero-rate traditional and religious symbols of femininity such as bangles and the red powder used for the ubiquitous sindoor and bindis, while taxing essential sanitary supplies. They say it reflects the patriarchal tendencies of a government that prioritises women's adornment over their health, and that the tax will put menstrual hygiene further out of reach of the country's millions of poor women and girls.
Certainly there is a problem with affordability. During her period a woman in India may use between $3 and $4 worth of pads each month, a sum that is beyond the reach of many. The World Bank reports that, with one in three earning less than $1.90 a day, India has the highest number of people of any country living below the poverty line.
Poor women's inability to spend the equivalent of two days' income on sanitary protection leads many to use unhygienic alternatives that may expose them to reproductive tract infections. It seems imprudent to raise revenue through the sale of sanitary towels only to find that health spending may have to increase as a result.
As many as 88% of Indian women do not use sanitary pads, either due to lack of knowledge or to the high cost of the product. In rural areas where the majority of India's poor live, sanitary pads are used sparingly and are frequently unavailable.
It also seems unjust that this tax should further penalise women who already suffer from being on the wrong end of the gender wage gap. It seems to fly in the face of the government's stated intent to empower women. In the words of Prime Minister Modi, "our women's empowerment programs are productivity multipliers that mainstream women in nation-building."
[GST] works against India's pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals' target 6.2 that calls for "adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all" with "special attention to the needs of women and girls."
But India is not the only country to find its women and girls are disadvantaged by their biology, and tax structures are not alone as a cause. All over the world girls find their lives changed by the onset of puberty, but only in developing countries might it signal the beginning of the end of their education.
As many as 23% of Indian girls drop out of school once they reach menarche. Outdated but deep-rooted cultural beliefs often mean families view this as the point a girl should stop attending school and instead adopt additional responsibilities at home and prepare for marriage. Even when girls are allowed to attend school after puberty, they are frequently absent during the days of menstruation. One study points out that girls miss up to 50 days of school a year for this reason.
The outrageous lack of sanitation facilities in schools in many countries in the developing world is also a major factor in girls' absence during their periods. Filthy, smelly lavatories with no running water are a health hazard at the best of times, and often prove just too much for menstruating girls.
The beneficial link between female education and lifetime health has never been in doubt. A better educated girl takes better control of her life. She has fewer and healthier children. Moreover, educated women participate in the labour market and help lift households out of poverty, with these benefits transmitting across generations.
India and other developing countries should be finding ways to encourage and increase the participation of women in the workforce, and not to penalise them for an entirely natural bodily function. According to a McKinsey Global Institute report, India could increase its 2025 gross domestic product by between 16% and 60% just by enabling women to participate equally with men in the economy.
Entire economies and the health of all citizens suffer when gender equality is not prioritised. This is not only a women's issue; it is about all of us.
That participation can only happen if we work to eliminate the traditions, cultures and legislation that perpetuate discrimination on the basis of gender. This is a much bigger topic than the controversial imposition of tax on sanitary protection, but it gives us a new lens through which to view such taxes. A girl's existence should not be defined by a humiliating lack of sanitary products, particularly if that lack also means loss of both education and a possible route out of poverty.
This tax also works against India's pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals' target 6.2 that calls for "adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all" with "special attention to the needs of women and girls." Furthermore, it prevents India from truly reaping the benefits of its demographic dividend.
Let us give the Indian government the benefit of the doubt and assume it did not impose this tax as a deliberate attack on women and girls. But, whatever the motive, it's clear that the tax as it stands has the potential to undermine efforts towards gender equality, and that is fundamentally wrong.
As a man and a firm believer in gender equality, my appeal to the Indian government is to re-think this issue. Ways must be found to make sanitary protection more, not less accessible to women and girls.
Entire economies and the health of all citizens suffer when gender equality is not prioritised. It is as simple and as complicated as that. This is not only a women's issue; it is about all of us.
These are the author's personal views.