GST on sanitary napkins but not on condoms: Taxed for being women?

The patriarchal mindset of the government is for everyone to see.

 |  4-minute read |   04-07-2017
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It’s the fourth day since the “biggest tax reform since 1947” has been rolled out and what is most obvious is its openly discriminatory nature. Medicines have 12 per cent GST, but gold will be taxed at 3 per cent. Moviegoing will include 28 per cent CGST and 30 per cent state tax, bringing it at a whopping 58 per cent. The so-called good and simple tax – the Goods and Services Tax – is becoming a veritable graph of systematic discrimination in monthly installments.

But something that’s most galling is the overt anti-woman bent in taxing sex-specific items. Sanitary napkins are to be taxed at 12 per cent, as per the GST, while condoms won’t be taxed at all. Can you just wrap your head around this, that too in 2017?

What is the logic behind making condoms tax-free while taxing sanitary napkins, tampons and other items of female reproductive hygiene at a steep 12 per cent? Plain and simple, it’s patriarchy in action, and the deep-seated taboo about menstruation being associated with uncleanliness, and menstrual blood being polluted.

This is the very reason why women, for the longest time, have not been allowed to enter places of worship, and it was only last year that the #RightToPray paid off with women activists setting foot in Sabarimala temple’s sanctum sanctorum.

A minister in Tamil Nadu said he’d like to have an X-ray scanner to check for menstruating women so that temples are not sullied by their presence. So much for scientific progress and India being a competitor in the race for space.

However, far more insidious than these overt and callous utterances betraying entrenched misogyny, is the fact that the government itself thinks no better than taxing sanitary napkins while making condoms tax-free. Does this mean women are being taxed for being women and having bodily needs that are sex-specific? Yes, of course.

Even though campaigns to make sanitary napkins tax-free have been launched, and even Congress MP Sushmita Dev had urged the Union minister of finance, Arun Jaitley, to make sanitary napkins tax-free, clearly all that has fallen on deaf ears. Ostensibly, the state’s logic is that condoms and female contraception, aimed at controlling India’s burgeoning 1.25 billion population, should be tax-free in national interest.

But does that mean women’s reproductive health isn’t part and parcel of the larger national goal? Doesn’t this discriminatory attitude by the state itself betray what the international press is calling “archaic period taboos” still prevalent in India?

As an editorial in DailyO had put it earlier:

“Sure, the taxation on menstrual hygiene products has gone down under the GST. While the tax on sanitary pads used to be 14.5 per cent earlier, a 2.5 per cent reduction to 12 is a good thing in itself. But it does not, at all, change the fact that a decision to continue taxing menstrual hygiene products — when it could have been avoided by the finance ministry while they were working on the slab — is a sad thing.”

Moreover, to think that the 12 per cent tax on sanitary napkins is actually an improvement upon the earlier proposal to tax them at 18 per cent! This when items such as sindoor, bangles and bindis – staple purchases of most married Hindu women – have been deemed “essential” and made exempt from tax.

So an item that will help brand a Hindu woman as married and therefore accommodated within patriarchy is tax-free, but an item that will help her chart the vagaries of her reproductive cycle, and help her during all the times when she’s not a mere womb, will aid in her independence and would assist in ensuring her health and hygiene, must be taxed.

According to an AC Nielsen study, insufficient menstrual protection makes many adolescent girls miss school for five days a month, that is 50 days a year. There are comparable numbers for labouring women in rural and semi-urban areas. In addition, proper disposal of sanitary napkins is a big problem, as is dealing with menstrual pain.

But of course, women’s health, when not centred around pregnancy, is hardly a matter of concern for the government. This is the reason why the six-month maternity leave became a fortunate reality under this regime, but the single, independent woman has fallen off the radar.

Given that it’s the AYUSH ministry and not merely some RSS-affiliated loony fringes that are churning out booklets on how women must withhold lustful thoughts during pregnancy, eschew meat – a crucial source of protein – among other gems of advices, the tax on sanitary napkins is really not that unexpected.

Also read: Demonetisation to GST - Modi is best at jumla

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