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Friday June 14th, 2024

The cost of being a Sri Lankan woman: Menstrual hygiene is very expensive

The following article is by Nishtha Chadha, a former intern at the Advocata Institute

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #EachforEqual – a concept grounded in the idea of ‘Collective Individualism’. Collective Individualism is the idea that each of us is part of one whole. Our individual actions, conversations, behaviours and mindsets go beyond the confines of our individual lives, and can have a significant impact on our larger society. Collectively, we have the capacity to create a gender-equal world. 

Gender equality in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka still has a significant way to go when it comes to gender equality. The Global Gender Gap Report 2020 ranks Sri Lanka 102 out of 153 countries in the gender equality index. Women’s economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment and political empowerment are major areas of concern, and only seem to be getting worse.

In 2006, Sri Lanka ranked 13th on the same gender gap index. In other words, over the last 14 years, the country has dropped 89 places on the index. Today, women are twice as likely as men to be unemployed, and barely 9% of Sri Lankan firms have women in top managerial positions. Only 5% of Sri Lanka’s parliament is made up of female representatives. 

Gender equality is not just a women’s issue, but a business issue. The World Bank Vice President for South Asia Region, Hartwig Schafer, has stated that Sri Lanka specifically could grow its economy by as much as 20 percent in the long-run by closing its gender gap in the workforce. Increasing women’s labour force participation can improve productivity by not only adding more people to the workforce, but also by enhancing diversity of thought in the workplace. 

So, why aren’t Sri Lankan women achieving their full potential?

A recent publication by the World Bank ‘Getting to Work : Unlocking Women’s Potential in Sri Lanka’s Labor Force (Vol. 2)’, cites that cultural norms continue to be a pervasive barrier to increasing women’s labour force participation in Sri Lanka. Entrenched with gender stereotypes, these cultural norms have direct implications on women’s educational pursuits, career longevity, and ability to participate in decision-making roles. What’s important to understand about cultural norms, however, is that they do not exist in a vacuum. Gender stereotypes which limit a woman’s ability to access education and economic opportunities. 

One example of these discriminatory policies are the exorbitant taxes on menstrual hygiene products in Sri Lanka. Access to safe and affordable menstrual hygiene products remains somewhat of a luxury for many Sri Lankan women. A leading contributor to the unaffordability of these products in Sri Lanka, is the taxes levied on imported items. 

Sanitary napkins and tampons are taxed under the HS code 96190010 and the import tariff levied on these products is 52%. Until September 2018, the tax on sanitary napkins was 101.2%. The components of this structure were Gen Duty (30%) + VAT (15%) + PAL (7.5%) + NBT (2%) and CESS (30% or Rs.300/kg). In September 2018, following social media outrage against the exorbitant tax, the CESS component of this tax was repealed by the Minister of Finance. Yet, despite the removal of the CESS levy, sanitary napkins and tampons continue to remain unaffordable and out of reach for the vast majority of Sri Lankan women. 

Figure 1: Breakdown of taxation structure (before September 2018)

30%15%7.5%2%30% or Rs.300/kg101.2%

The average woman has her period for around 5 days and will use 4 pads a day. Under the previous taxation scheme, this would cost her LKR 520 a month.  The estimated average monthly household income of the households in the poorest 20% in Sri Lanka is LKR 14,84. To these households, the monthly cost of menstrual hygiene products would therefore make up 3.5% of their expenses. In comparison, the percentage of expenditure of this income category on clothing is around 4.4%.

The impact of unaffordability

The high cost of menstrual hygiene products in Sri Lanka has direct implications on girls’ education, health and employment. 

According to a 2015 analysis of 720 adolescent girls and 282 female teachers in Kalutara district, 60% of parents refuse to send their girls to school during periods of menstruation. Moreover, in a survey of adolescent Sri Lankan girls, slightly more than a third claimed to miss school because of menstruation. When asked to explain why, 68% to 81% cited pain and physical discomfort and 23% to 40% cited fear of staining clothes. 

Inaccessibility of menstrual hygiene products also results in the use of makeshift, unhygienic replacements, which have direct implications on menstrual hygiene management (MHM). Poor MHM can result in serious reproductive tract infections. A study on cervical cancer risk factors in India, has found a direct link between the use of cloth during menstruation (a common substitute for sanitary napkins) and the development of cervical cancer; the second-most common type of cancer among Sri Lankan women today. 

The unaffordability of menstrual hygiene products is proven to have direct consequences on women’s participation in the labor force. A study on apparel sector workers in Bangladesh found that providing subsidized menstrual hygiene products resulted in a drop in absenteeism of female workers and an increase in overall productivity. 

Slashing taxes for gender equality

Internationally, repeals on menstrual hygiene product taxation are becoming increasingly common due to their proliferation of gender inequality and the resulting unaffordability of essential care items, commonly known as ‘period poverty’. Kenya was the first country to abolish sales tax for menstrual products in 2004 and countries including Australia, Canada, India, Ireland and Malaysia have all followed suit in recent years.

If Sri Lankans are serious about creating an equal platform for women and girls to achieve their full potential, ‘Collective Individualism’ is certainly the key. Gender equality can no longer be just a ‘women’s issue’. It’s an ‘everyone issue’. Each and every Sri Lankan has a responsibility to demand real action from their policymakers, to promote gender-sensitive policies and abolish taxes like this, which actively limit a woman’s ability to achieve her full potential. 

By reducing the rates of taxation, the cost of importing sanitary napkins and tampons will simultaneously decrease and stimulate competition in the industry, further driving prices down and encouraging innovation. The conventional argument in favour of import tariffs is the protection of the local industry. However, in Sri Lanka, sanitary napkin exports only contribute a mere Rs. 25.16 million, or 0.001%, to total exports. 

Increased market competition would also incentivise local manufacturers to innovate better quality products and ensure their prices remain competitive for consumers. Other common concerns pertaining to the issue of low quality products potentially flooding the Sri Lankan market if taxation is reduced are unlikely to materialise, since quality standards are already imposed by the Sri Lankan government on imported products under SLS 111.

If menstrual hygiene products are made more affordable it is likely that more Sri Lankan women will be able to uptake their use, allowing them to attend more school days, work more consistently and, by extension, access more opportunities. Moreover, with more products entering the market, women will have expanded consumer agency, allowing them to purchase products that address their specific needs without being economically burdened for it. This would remove a significant barrier to women’s empowerment and create a wide-scale positive impact on closing Sri Lanka’s present gender gap. 

Gender equality can only be achieved when we begin dismantling the structures that disadvantage our most vulnerable counterparts. Abolishing Sri Lanka’s menstrual tax may just be one small step towards achieving this. The Advocata Institute has launched an online campaign titled ‘the costs of being a woman’, which highlights taxes that disproportionately affect women. With every discriminatory tax and policy that is abolished, the collective impact could be transformative. 

That is what #EachforEqual is about – sharing the responsibility to create a more equal world for each and every one of us. 

Nishtha Chadha worked at the Advocata Institute as a Research Intern, and can be contacted at Learn more about Advocata’s work at The opinions expressed are the author’s own views. They may not necessarily reflect the views of the Advocata Institute, or anyone affiliated with the institute.

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Sri Lanka opposition leader proposes Grama Rajya system in addition to 13A

Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa (r) – File photo

ECONOMYNEXT — Sri Lanka opposition leader Sajith Premadasa has proposed devolving power to the village level through a Grama Rajya system in addition to implementing the 13th amendment to the constitution.

Speaking at an event in Jaffna on on Wednesday June 12, Premadasa said all provinces will benefit from the 13th amendment.

“Whatever one’s ethnicity, religion, status or region, this country has citizens of equal level. They’re all Sri Lankan citizens.

“There is no division or grouping.  As we give you and every other province what you should be given through the 13th amendment, we must implement a Grama Rajya system,” Premadasa said, addressing a crowd of school children and other attendees.

Premadasa’s assurance of implementing the 13th amendment has already drawn some protest in the south.

A collective of civil society organisations held a protest outside the office of the leader of the opposition in Colombo on Thursday June 12.

Calling itself the ‘Coalition Against Partition of Sri Lanka’, the group carrying national flags marched up to the opposition leader’s office Thursday June 13 morning and demonstrated against the full implementation of the 13th amendment.

“We arrived here today to hand over a missive against devolving police powers, land powers and judicial powers. If Mr Premadasa is inside, come outside,” Jamuni Kamantha Thushara, Chairman of the Citizen’s Movement Against Fraud, Corruption, and Waste, was seen declaring at the site.

“First of all, tell us what we stand to achieve by dividing and giving away the north and east,” said another protestor, warning against bringing the 13th amendment “anywhere here (paththa palaathe)”.

A police officer at the scene the protestors that a secretary to the opposition leader was ready to accept their letter.

“In Kilonochchi, he says the 13th amendment will be implemented. The votes in the north are going to be decisive this election. To win those votes, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith and Anura Kumara Dissanayake all say they will implement the 13th. We will not allow this country to be divided into nine pieces,” said Thushara.

Ven Balangoda Kassapa Thero, who was arrested on June 06 during a protest against the new Electricity Act, was also seen at Thursday’s protest. The Buddhist monk requested for a debate with Premadasa on the matter of the 13th amendment. (Colombo/Jun12/2024)

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Sri Lanka rupee closes flat at 303.85/95 to US dollar

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s rupee closed broadly flat at 303.85/95 to the US dollar on Thursday, from 303.80/304.00 to the dollar the previous day, dealers said. Bond yields were down.

A bond maturing on 15.12.2026 closed at 10.00/30 percent, down from 10.20/40 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.10.2027 closed at 10.60/75 percent.

A bond maturing on 01.07.2028 closed at 11.00/15 percent, down from 11.15/40 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.09.2029 closed at 11.80/85 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.05.2030 closed at 11.85/12.05 percent, down from 11.90/12.05 percent.

A bond maturing on 01.10.2032 closed stable at 11.95/12.15 percent. (Colombo/Jun13/2024)

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Sri Lanka sells Rs295bn in 2027 to 2031 bonds

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka has sold 295 billion rupees in 2027, 2029 and 2031 bonds, data from the state debt office showed.

The debt office sold an offered 60 billion rupees of 15 October 2027 at an average yield of 10.30 percent.

All offered 125 billion rupees of 15 September 2029 bonds were sold at 11.00 percent.

All 110 billion rupees offered of 01 December 2031 bonds were sold at 12.00 percent. (Colombo/May13/2024)

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