Remove all taxes on sanitary pads and give girls a fighting chance

A social worker teaches schoolgirls how to use a sanitary pad. Courtesy

“It would be amazing; it would be great. The problem is how do you determine who can afford and who cannot afford”?

These words, spoken by Alain Munyaburanga, the Head teacher of Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology, were reported last week in a news story titled ‘Activists push for free sanitary pads for girls from poor families’ got me thinking.

The headmaster’s choice of a single word was what got to me, the word ‘amazing’.

For you see, the dictionary definition of amazing is something that ‘causes great surprise or wonder’. It boggles my mind that the very idea of giving young women the tools needed to attend school or even live better lives should ‘cause great surprise and wonder’.

Sanitary towels are not a luxury and the women in our country should not be forced to treat them that way. Women should not be forced to choose between either buying sanitary towels or buying something essential for their wellbeing such as food, clothing or school materials.

According to UN statistics, 10% of Sub-Saharan girls lose almost a week of school every month due to the fact that they do not have sanitary towels. I do not know what the statistics are here in Rwanda, but what I do know is that even if 1% of our girls are unable to attend school due to their monthly menses, that is an untenable situation, especially because Rwanda’s major resource is its human capital.

We need to do better and we can do better.

In 2013, the East African Legislative Assembly showed a way forward. The Assembly urged its member states to remove all taxes and duties on sanitary equipment, whether towels or tampons. Unfortunately, no member state has done so as we speak. And that, my friends is both ‘amazing’ and, sadly, not unexpected.

I’m going to throw this theory out there, and please don’t take me outside city limits and stone me to death, figuratively speaking of course. The only reason that sanitary pads aren’t tax-free, or even better yet given out for free, is because menses do not affect men.

I believe that if we men went through that biological process every month without fail, we’d quickly figure out how to ensure that all of us had the means to comfortably stay at work and at school. And we’d figure out how to make it free or at least extremely cheap. But because it only happens to our sisters, we do not seem to care enough. And that is wrong.

Just look at condoms. The entire world figured out how to make them free in order to combat HIV, a disease that affects everybody, rich or poor, black or white, MALE or female. Would we have done this if HIV affected only women? I don’t know. I’d hope so, because I like to think the best of humanity, but I’m not sure to be honest. Men don’t really have a great track record when it comes to treating our women like, well, people like us.

Rwanda has led on so many things where gender relations are concerned. Through legislation, we’ve ensured that women have property rights and we’ve ensured that they have a constitutionally guaranteed place in our political system. Now, the next step is to partner with our women to ensure that they are able to fully enjoy the freedoms and opportunities that have been availed legislatively.

So yes, girls are now encouraged to go to school. That great. Now we need to work extremely hard to guarantee that we remove every hurdle that is placed in front of women in order for them to contribute fully to society. As a country we have been doing that and good progress has been made. We need to move even further and faster on this journey total women’s emancipation and and I believe that removing every single tax on sanitary equipment is another step in the right direction.




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