Tampon tax is just the tip of the iceberg


Tampon tax has finally fallen. This means an immediate injection of cash into the hands – and the households – of women. Right now women have an opportunity to come together to offset both the societal cost of menstruation and a broader gender bias. But will we?

If you need a neatly wrapped African example of the impact cutting tax on sanitary pads and tampons can have on a society impact by poverty, just look to Kenya. In 2004 the Kenyan government became the first in the world to repeal the so-called tampon tax. Plus the Kenyan government is also involved in distributing free pads to school girls; something the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government in South Africa is currently trying out after years of promises under the Jacob Zuma administration that free sanitary pads would be provided to poor women and girls.

Yes, these are positive moves and Kenya has certainly been proactive, but still a 2015 study published in the Journal of Women’s Health found that one in 10 15-year-old girls in Kenya were having sex to pay for sanitary products, while Kenyan social advocacy group ZanaAfrica told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that 65% of women and girls in the country still cannot afford sanitary pads. So cutting tax is just half the story.

Mauritius only recently scrapped its tampon tax, in 2017, joining a small group that includes the likes of Canada, Nigeria, Tanzania and Australia. Just this year India too announced a 100% exception of general sales tax on sanitary products earlier. According to news agency AFP some 60% of women in India between the ages of 16 and 24 do not have access to feminine hygiene products, rising to 80% in the country’s poorer states. This highlights that while countries like Hungary, Sweden, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom continue to tax these products, the impact of removing tax on these necessary items can have a positive impact on women from poorer households. But the Kenyan example shows us that cutting tax alone might not be enough.

Earlier this year the Stellenbosch University Law Clinic added its voice to the likes of activists such as #FreeToBleed and social activism group Amandla Mobi and petitioned National Treasury to zero-rate sanitary products. At the time the Law Clinic’s Monja Posthumus-Meyjes, Danielle Louw and Erika Wright, together with Faculty of Law lecturers Dr Lize Mills and Silke de Lange, argued that a lack of access resulted in poor hygiene which could post serious health risks. Furthermore they noted: “About 30% of female learners in South African schools do not attend school when they menstruate as they cannot afford sanitary hygiene products. This means that a girl could effectively lose about 90 days of schooling a year as a direct result of issues relating to menstruation.”

The impact of menstruation on school attendance for girls who cannot afford sanitary products has been well recorded by the likes of United Nations and the World Bank, but there are other issues at play too. These include pregnancy, poverty, child labour, discrimination and cultural conditioning which placed the education of boy children above their female counterparts.

Over the lifetime of a single woman, the financial cost of feminine hygiene also adds up. In 2014 the British Journal of Medicine & Medical Research published an article exploring the feasibility of using reusable menstrual cups in which the authors estimated that “an average [western] woman will use as many as 17 000 pads and tampons in her lifetime”. They also made mention of the environmental impact of the disposal of these contaminated pads and tampons. What is the case in South Africa?

Well, in South Africa, a box of 24 Lil-Lets current costs in the region of R53.95 and eight Always Maxi pads is R22.95. That’s an estimated cost of R2.87 per pad and R2.25 per tampon. Assuming a preference for either one or the other, the average woman will spend between R48 790 and R38 250 on these products over her lifetime. That, of course, is in today’s money and does not take into account the impact of inflation – or indeed the potential impact of compound interest if the woman in question decided to save this small amount each month instead of allocating it elsewhere in her budget.

As a company active in the socio-economic development of women through advocacy and the provision of microloans through the Siyakhula Microfinance Institution, WDB Holdings knows full well the importance that even a small amount can make to empowering a woman; especially those in challenging financial circumstances.

While for women living on the bread line the roughly R23 per period which the VAT exception will translate into per month will doubtless go back into the household budget, those women who fall into South Africa’s wide – and widening – definition of middle class status (a household income of between R5 600 and R40 000 a month), can and should consider the benefits of saving this R23 a month.

According to Statistics SA’s mid-year population estimate for 2018, about 51% (29.5 million) of South Africans are women. Of this about 19.6 million are aged between 10 and 54, which falls into the average band for menstruating women (about 13 and 50). If just half of these women put R23 a month into a Tax Free Savings Account for the duration of their periods (around 37 years), earned just 6% in interest and then left the money untouched until they retired at 65, this would give them each a nest-egg of over R36 000. Together these 9.8 million women would have saved a collective R352.8 billion. This does not, of course, take into the account the impact of inflation on these figures and rising interest rates; which would swell this number.

This injection of women-controlled capital into the South African economy would not only be a wealth creation tool, but would give women the leverage and the advocacy needed to increase the voice women have in society.

For years the tampon tax has existed in law as a form of gender discrimination and bias, this is as true for South Africa as it is today for those countries which continue to cling to this unfair form of taxation. The zero VAT-rated victory on sanitary products is undoubtedly a win, but to make it a real victory for the women of South Africa requires us to put our heads together and be mindful about the financial potential of this saving.

In a 2017 paper, Professor of Law Bridget Crawford, from Pace University in New York (Tampon Taxes, Discrimination, and Human Rights), wrote: “It does not require any special training in law or economics to understand that taxes on menstrual products mean less money left in the female consumer’s pocket. Once widespread differences in treatment have been identified and named, if enough girls and women (and their supporters) become activated, reform efforts should follow.”

Yes, women have secured a victory over the tampon tax; let’s make this the first of many.


*Faith Khanyile is CEO of WDB Investment Holdings