Time for concrete action to end period poverty

The Chronicle

Theresa Farai Nyava

THERE seems to be an erroneous feeling of respite amongst some menstrual health activists and stakeholders regarding the removal of duty and VAT on selected imported sanitary wear products by Government. 

While the move was a good gesture by government; it should be noted that this is not a recent development; but rather a move long overtaken by events and whose benefit has long vanished. 

But it is important to understand how this whole issue started. The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) runs a regular newspaper column called “The Taxman’s Corner” where they publish articles to explain various tax issues arising from policy. 

It happened that on 20 June 2019, Zimra featured an article in The Chronicle under the topic “Suspension of duty on sanitary wear for women”. 

The article was talking about the suspension of customs duty and VAT on imported sanitary wear which was effected by government last year. Then on 24 June 2019, our sister paper The Herald featured a story on its front page under the headline “Sanitary wear now exempt from duty,” which was basically quoting that Zimra article. And this is how the whole confusion started, as many people thought this was a latest intervention made by government.

But you may recall that the duty and VAT exemption for selected imported sanitary wear products took place on 1 December 2018 through Statutory Instrument 264 of 2018 (suspending customs duty on imported sanitary wear) as well as Statutory Instrument 265 of 2018 (exempting VAT on imported sanitary wear). 

The duty and VAT averaged 35 percent. However, from December 2018 up to now, the price of sanitary wear has sharply increased by not less than 800 percent. 

This was in response to the increase in the general price level which saw inflation rising from 31 percent in November 2018 to 97.85 percent in May 2019, with the consumer basket ballooning to $948. 

The scrapping of customs duty on sanitary wear and VAT exemption on the same is therefore now a non-event as the aftermath of the policy development triggered an avalanche of problems to the already suffering menstruating girls and women, already battling to make ends meet.

A typical example to demonstrate this is the case of a 40-year-old lady who works as a domestic worker in a Harare suburb and earns $120 per month. 

In November last year, when a packet of her choice sanitary pads were going for $1.60, sanitary wear represented just 2.7 percent of her total salary (for she requires two packets). Now the same brand is going for $18 per packet and her monthly sanitary wear requirements of two packets now represent 30 percent of her salary. 

Further, when Government scrapped the duty and VAT on imported sanitary wear last year, it said the move was being taken “in order to cushion underprivileged women and girls”. 

But the underprivileged can’t afford to access sanitary wear over the counter, because we are talking about groups of women and girls such as the homeless, women and girls in disaster relief camps, female refugees, female prisoners, girls in children’s homes, poor rural girls, among others. 

So, if the government really wants to provide sanitary cushion to underprivileged menstruators, then it should really consider providing them for free. 

It is fallacious for some to think that government does not afford the free sanitary wear bill when it can afford to provide free agricultural inputs to over 2.2 million households across the country. 

It’s only a question of whether government is gender responsive enough to prioritise menstrual health in its budgeting. Otherwise, sanitary products are also important inputs for humanity to thrive. 

The Education Fund which is being proposed in the Education Amendment Bill should therefore also cater for free sanitary products to school girls that can’t afford so that they don’t miss school or fail to concentrate because of this natural biological process that they didn’t choose. 

Then in terms of policy, there is need for an urgent corrective policy position to ensure that every girl and woman can afford sanitary wear as their prices continues to skyrocket, much to the despair of the generality of the country’s female population that menstruates. 

As Sanitary Aid Zimbabwe Trust, we therefore call on government to consider some of the following interventions with immediate effect:

Firstly, government should deploy some of the budget surpluses that have been accrued by Treasury towards subsidising the price of sanitary products, and then include sanitary wear in the list of monitored products. 

A good precedent for subsidising things for public interest has already been set in the transport sector where, after realising that many members of the public can no longer afford the rising fares for them to travel to work or school, government introduced subsidised buses where people pay as little as 50 cents. 

The same concept should be considered for sanitary wear. What should be noted is that the cost of not taking action to foster menstrual equity is far much higher and cuts across the socio-economic spectrum for generations.

Secondly, we implore on Government to also provide adequate foreign currency allocations to local producers of sanitary wear so that they can source imported raw materials competitively. Right now only one producer is supplying widely as four of the other suppliers have either closed                                                                                         down operations or streamlined operations due to challenges relating to lack of raw materials and the duty that is also technically charged on them when importing raw materials.

That said, we also urge the local producers of disposable sanitary wear to be innovative and consider import substitution measures aimed at reducing their high import element for raw materials as they currently import more than 70 percent of their raw materials. Fortunately, this is happening at a time when Government is planning to launch the Local Content Strategy to promote the utilisation of domestic resources. 

And still on that, we also encourage government to make the sanitary wear industry a prioritised sector that gets incentives such as zero-rated VAT on supplies, uninterrupted power supply, and other measures, in the soon to be launched Industrial Development Policy. 

We can actually do away with imported sanitary wear totally, if the local                                                                                                    sanitary wear industry is adequately supported to revive operations competitively, because the local players actually have                                                                                                             excess capacity to meet the sanitary requirements of about 3 million menstruators in Zimbabwe. 

Lastly, we also encourage more women and girls to now migrate to reusable pads as they are now actually cheaper compared to disposable pads, also noting that they are friendly to the environment.

λ Theresa Farai Nyava is the founder and executive director of Sanitary Aid Zimbabwe Trust, a local charitable trust that is on a relentless mission to end period poverty and foster menstrual equity.