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Taxing monthlies: Australian, Indian women share a GST moment

Surely, in India, there is a case for subsidising female genital health.  The economic raison d'etre for taxing 'non-essentials' is that consumers have a choice, writes Rakesh Ahuja for South Asia Monitor

Sep 7, 2017
By Rakesh Ahuja
 
July 1, 2017 marked an incongruous coincidence for Australian and Indian women in rebellion against GST on menstrual hygiene products.
 
GST turned 17 in Australia. That day, India introduced its GST regime.  In both countries, the tax continues to be stalked by abrasive debates on the distinction between essential and luxury goods, the former exempt or minimally taxed, the latter heavily taxed. In particular, on what women deride as tax on ‘blood’, ‘tampons’ and “women’s existence”. 
 
Annually, there are calls in Australia to axe this tax. In July, the government rejected an opposition party’s move to exempt female sanitary items from 10% GST citing “revenue compulsions.” The same song is playing in India, where country-wide social media campaigns have unleashed protests against the 12% tampon tax. Responding to anti-tax lobbyists, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley asked them to “consider the burden of it on the exchequer.”
 
While the moot case against GST is the same in both countries - feminine hygiene products are essential not a luxury - in India, the issue is interwoven with cultural conditioning and economic twists, beyond what the most ardent opponents of the tax in Australia could imagine.
 
Relevant facts in India: 12-20% of the country’s 355 million post-pubescent women use menstrual sanitary products, rest rely on alternatives, from old rags to variously bound husk, newspapers, ashes, dry leaves.  Inevitably, Reproductive Tract Infection (RTI) is rampant.  Rural girls miss five days of school monthly, and 23% drop out altogether when they reach menarche.
 
The GST regime groups sanitary napkins with goods like meats, cellphones, novelty items, exercise books. It is the contrasting zero-tax slab on other female orientated, “indispensable” goods that provides a glimpse into enduring misogyny.  These include sindoor, vermillion powder for head hair parting and the forehead bindi, both signifying married Hindu women. 
 
The subtext is clear. Crimson markers fortifying the male fantasy of an ideal, devout woman are acceptable.  But if she bleeds, then she is unclean! Menstruating females are consigned to separate sleeping quarters, forbidden to enter kitchens or touch others. And not only in rural India!
 
The perception of a woman becoming a monthly economic and social liability has plagued Western societies too. The Old Testament (Leviticus 15) tainted menstruating women as unclean.  19th century Europeans believed that the touch of menstruating women ruined food.
 
Savvy Indian women are enraged.  NGO SheSays has launched #LahuKaLagaan (‘tax on blood’) campaign unleashing a storm of protests from internet’s female denizens.  #HappyToBleed has inspired intra-collegial “Period Poetry”
 
It is no one’s case that an estimated USD 11/- GST paid annually on sanitary products tears a hole in an Australian woman’s budget.  But it’s a different story in India. Though a downmarket unit may cost less than INR 4,  70 % of India’s post-menarcheal and pre-menopausal women cannot afford sanitary pads. Millions of impoverished rural women consider them a luxury – ironically agreeing with government, which misses the irony.  It ignores the obvious fact that indirect taxes can mould private and social practices.
 
Surely, in India, there is a case for subsidising female genital health.  The economic raison d’etre for taxing ‘non-essentials’ is that consumers have a choice. If so, why are salt and condoms levy-exempt? There is choice to go salt-free or have unprotected sex. In Australia or India, the point is not only economic but also social justice. This tax defies gender equality; it is a tax on periods, not pads.  A natural physiological event is not a lifestyle choice.  Affordable sanitary products for coping with the ‘monthlies’ with self-worth are a woman’s fundamental right. 
 
(Rakesh Ahuja is a retired Australian diplomat of Indian origin and a political and social analyst. He can be contacted at rakeshahuja@axessindia.com)

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