Rwanda: Is VAT Waiver Enough to Ease Access to Sanitary Pads?

18 February 2020

"Period Poverty" remains a daunting challenge

The name Jackline Chepngeno will not be forgotten by many girls and women in a very long time.

Chepngeno, a 14-year-old girl from Kenya committed suicide last year after her teacher allegedly shamed her in front of her classmates, calling her 'dirty', before kicking her out of class for bleeding through her school uniform.

Chepgeno's story was received with shock and anger from different categories of people all over the world.

Some of them even took to the streets to demonstrate, calling for the need to urgently and openly address issues related to what has now come to be called 'Period Poverty'.

'Period poverty' is the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, handwashing facilities, and waste management facilities.

In August 2013, the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) passed a resolution urging all partner states to waive taxes on sanitary pads so as to increase their availability and affordability for young girls.

Tanzania scrapped the tax having been pioneered by Kenya which took the decision as far back as 2004.

Rwanda followed suit last year when it scrapped Value Added Tax (VAT) on sanitary pads.

The Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion Permanent Secretary, Assumpta Ingabire, said that the move was aimed at easing affordability and improving menstrual health management for girls in vulnerable categories.

"The government came up with the decision because we saw that there is a group of vulnerable girls and women who cannot afford sanitary pads at their current cost," she said.

Not enough

The decision made headlines in both local and international news.

While the move was hailed as a step in the right direction, the 18 per cent VAT waiver is still considered by many as minor and as one that still doesn't come anywhere close to eliminating the challenges that come with 'Period Poverty'.

For instance, the cheapest packet of sanitary pads on the local market costs Rwf500.

With the deduction of VAT, the packet price reduces by a paltry Rwf90.

Possible solutions

The Executive Director of SPECTRA, a young feminists' activism association; Chantal Umuhoza says the news to cut the VAT was significant but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to make 'Period Poverty' history.

"The reduction of VAT is a very good step but it does not guarantee affordability and accessibility especially by women and girls of low economic status. There will still be other costs that will be incurred by importers, sellers of these products which will in the end still be incurred by the end-user," she said.

Umuhoza pointed out that there was a need for incentives to entice local businesses into setting up factories that can produce affordable, high quality and environmental friendly menstrual products.

This, she says, would ensure affordability for those who can afford them and the free distribution to the very poor.

Kenya is the only country in the region to have scrapped VAT and instituted a $3 million annual budget for the distribution of free sanitary pads to girls in low-income communities.

Julian Ingabire Kayibanda is the CEO of 'The Playground' a Social Enterprise helping to build community-parents, educators, caregivers and leaders.

She also is passionate about youth empowerment, having worked as the COO of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), an organisation using market-based approaches to tackle girls and women's menstrual health issues.

She told The New Times in a telephone interview that one of the most important steps in this journey is to acknowledge that menstrual sanitary pads are important and necessary

"We need the entire community to know about menstruation. Let the way we strive to find books be the same way we look for pads because there is no point in having books when the girl misses three to five days of school due to lack of pads," she said.

Kayibanda also suggests the need to look into local production, pointing out that several pilots have proven that it is possible.

"We need local production of menstrual sanitary pads. As long as we are importing it, it's still going to be expensive and unaffordable to the women and girls with little to no income. It is possible because there are several pilots that have been tested that show that local production is possible," she said.

Why is it an issue?

Medical experts estimate that the average woman spends 2,535 days of her life menstruating.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) links poor menstrual hygiene to physical health risks and reproductive and urinary tract infections.

But that is not all, menstrual challenges can affect women causing them to miss out on opportunities that are crucial for their development, often blocking their chances to reach their full potential.

Though there are no official statistics to confirm the numbers, a survey of 500 girls conducted by the 'Sustainable Health Enterprises' showed that close to one in four girls in Rwanda miss between three and four school days a month as a result of menstruation.

The UN estimates that one in 10 girls from Sub-Saharan Africa miss school during their menstrual cycle, with some missing out on 20 per cent of their education period.

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