In 2015, I was an honours student at the University of the Witwatersrand. I put forward a policy proposal to Parliament for the provision of free sanitary pads to economically disadvantaged people as part of the Livity Africa Parliament Challenge, a competition to encourage youth participation in governance.
A walk down the feminine hygiene aisle of any supermarket will reveal that sanitary products are not affordable for many South Africans.
The average person who menstruates will use up to 17 000 sanitary pads or tampons in her lifetime, according to a 2014 study published in the British Journal of Medicine & Medical Research. If the average house brand sanitary pad costs about R2.33 each, that means the average person could spend up to almost R40 000 on sanitary pads in their lifetime.
Poor people who cannot afford this end up using items like rags, tree leaves, toilet paper or newspapers to prevent bleeding on and – let’s face it – through their clothes.
Not using disposable pads during menstruation can cause urinary tract infections, says a 2015 study published in the Plos One journal. It also infringes on people’s dignity.
In 2011, President Jacob Zuma committed to providing poor people who menstruate with sanitary pads. This still has not materialised so I went to Parliament to make the case for free pads at a portfolio committee meeting. Here are four things I learned.
Tampon tax: What's the big deal?
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Why are people who menstruate forced to spend at least R40 000 on sanitary products in their lifetime?
2017 is the year for free pads, says department of women
Just a day before my presentation, minister of women in the presidency Susan Shabangu announced the department is working on a policy for free pads. As part of this, the department will meet with government departments, nongovernmental organisations and corporations to discuss how the policy could be implemented.
It is not yet clear what the policy will entail, however it is set to be finalised in 2017.
Treasury does not support #TamponTaxMustFall
The Tampon tax is the Value Added Tax (VAT) that is put on sanitary products such as pads and tampons. Removing the tax on sanitary products will not be beneficial to poor people who menstruate, said Treasury chief director Yanga Mputa at the portfolio committee meeting. According to Treasury’s presentation, a zero-VAT approach on sanitary products will only affect about 1 to 6 % of the most vulnerable – people that are from rural areas and who don’t have access to water nor high levels of education. There will be high revenue losses from richer people, and that money could have been allocated to pro-poor expenses. There is a need to do further research on gendered impacts of tax instruments, Treasury director Marle Van Niekerk argued.
Van Niekerk said: “One of our fears is that removing the tax on sanitary products will not be an equitable solution. The tax will mostly be beneficial to rich people and not the poor.”
It takes a village to make sanitary pads free
When I began to research how to make sanitary pads free, I thought that the department of health would be able to sort the problem out by themselves. But after the health parliamentary committee rejected my initial proposal last year, saying that providing free pads was not their mandate, I learned that it will take multiple government departments to make free pads happen.
Treasury will have to determine how much will be allocated for the procurement and distribution of free pads, while education departments will be responsible for distributing sanitary products in schools, universities and colleges.
The social development department will have to be involved in the distribution for people who are not in the education system.
“This matter is affecting all of us as women and as leaders. But unfortunately the country does not have legislation or a policy on this issue. Government and private sector are not working together because we lack that directive. We need a coordinating structure,” said ANC Member of Parliament Grace Tseke.
The fight for free sanitary pads is far from over
Introducing free pads could happen in two phases, say Treasury representatives. For now, the focus is on fulfilling Zuma’s 2011 commitment.
The long-term goal will be to fund an integrated public policy that will deliver pads to all who need them. In order for treasury to allocate funds, the departments of health, social development and basic education must each submit business plans that outline their respective responsibilities. No department has done this.
“We could distribute pads like we do condoms or books in schools… But government departments need to tell us how it would work… For example, the department of social development could be responsible for women who are not in school,” said Treasury representatives.
I was very disappointed in the lack progress on the issue. The political will for free pads seems to be there, however the bureaucracy and lack of urgency from government may delay matters.
I concluded my presentation by recommending that the committee exercise oversight to find a long-lasting and sustainable solution. A national policy must be created to address the need for safe and dignified menstruation in South Africa. Filling this gap must be prioritised and added to the National Development Plan 2030.
Bhekisisa health reporter Pontsho Pilane won the Livity Africa Parliament Challenge when she was an honours student at the University of the Witwatersrand and put forward a policy proposal to Parliament for the provision of free sanitary pads to disadvantaged people. She presented it in Parliament on November 23.
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