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Wednesday December 7th, 2022

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 in deep talent drain in latest currency crisis

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka businesses are facing a drain of talent, top business executives said as the country suffers the worst flexible exchange rate crisis in the history of its intermediate regime central bank and people lose hope.

“We are seeing a trend towards migrating,” Krishan Balendra, Chairman of Sri Lanka’s John Keells Holdings told an economic policy forum organized by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

“We have seen an impact mainly on the tourist hotels side, quite an exodus of staff (migrating) to countries we have not seen in the past. 

“We have seen people go to Scotland, Ireland. It has usually been the Middle East and Maldives. Australia seems like a red hot labor market at the moment.”

Sri Lanka’s rupee collapsed from 200 to 360 to the US dollar after macro-economists printed money to suppress rates.

Sri Lanka operates a ‘flexible exchange rate’ where errors in targeting interest rates are compensated by currency depreciation especially after the 1980s.

Classical economists and analysts have called for the power to mis-target rates and operate dual anchor conflicting monetary regimes should be taken away to prevent future crisis.

Currency crises are problems associated with flexible exchange rate central banks which are absent in hard pegs and clean floats.

“Something new we are seeing is that older people, even those in their 50s, which was a surprise, are looking at migrating,” Balendra said.

Businesses are trying to retain talent as real wages collapse.

Balendra said as businesses they see some stability returning and based on past experience growth is likely to resume, and they were communicating with the workers.

“We have a degree of conviction that the economy should get better, its the stability phase now and it will get better going forward so without the way our businesses are placed we should see good growth,” Balendra said.

“We can’t chase compensation that’s just not practical and we are not trying to do that especially if people are looking to immigrate but what we can do is show the career opportunities in the backdrop of the situation that people would rather stay here because its home.” 

Sri Lanka unit of Heineken says it is also trying to convince workers not to leave, with more success.

“We are all facing the effects of brain drain and it’s not just the lower levels… What we are doing is a balance of daring and caring,” Maud Meijboom-van Wel – Managing Director / CEO, Heineken Lanka Ltd told the forum.

“Why I say daring is, you have to be clear in what you can promise people, when you make promises you have to walk the talk. So with the key talents and everyone you need to have the career and talent conversations.

“I am a bit lucky because I am running a multinational company so my career path goes beyond Sri Lanka so I can say if you acquire certain skills here, then you can move out of here and then come back too, that is a bit easier for me but it starts with having a real open conversation with walking the talk – dare and care.” (Colombo/Dec7/2022)


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Despite losses, Sri Lanka to resume “park & ride” transport after complaints  

ECONOMYNEXT –  Sri Lanka’s state-run Transport Board will resume its loss-making City Bus service from January 15, 2022 Cabinet Spokesman Bandula Gunawardena said, after the service abruptly discontinued with the state-run firm’s director board citing losses.

The City Bus service was introduced in 2021, under the government of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, from Makubura to Pettah and Bambalapitiya.

The service was started to reduce the number of automobiles travelling to and from Colombo and suburbs by providing a comfortable, convenient and safe public bus transportation for passengers and riders who use cars and motorcycles as their means of transportation.

During the time period in which the service was initiated, there were 800 hundred vehicles that would be parked and would use the system, Gunawardena, who is also the Transport Minister, said.

The service was later collapsed due to inconsistencies in scheduling and it was completely stopped after

“Without informing the Secretary or the Minister of the relevant Ministry, the Board of Directors have come to a conclusion that this is loss making route and must be halted,” Gunawardena said.

“The users of the City Bus service brought to our notice and therefore I gave the Secretary to the Ministry of Transport the approval to start the City Bus service from January 15.”

“If we stop all loss making transport services then massive inconveniences will occur to the people in far parts of the island.”

The chairman of the state run Ceylon Transport Board has been asked to handover the resignation letter by the Minister Gunawardana citing that the head has failed to implement a policy decision approved by the government. (Colombo/ Dec 06/2022)

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Sri Lanka may see rates falling next year: President

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s interest rates are high and hurting small businesses in particular but interest rates are required to maintain stability, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said.

“One is, all of you want to know what’s going to happen to the interest rates?,” President Wickremesinghe told an economic policy forum organized by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

“I wish I know. The governor has told me that the inflation has peaked. It’s coming down. You all understandably want some relief with the interest rates to carry business on.”

“I understand that and appreciate the viewpoint. It’s not easy to carry business on with such high interest rates. On the other hand, the Central Bank also has to handle the economy. So maybe sometimes early next year we will have a meeting of minds of both these propositions.”

Sri Lanka’s interest rates are currently at around 30 percent but not because the central bank is keeping it up. The central bank’s overnight policy rate is only 15.5 percent but the requirement to finance the budget deficit and roll over debt is keeping rates up.

Rates are also high due to a flaw in the International Monetary Fund’s debt workout framework where there is no early clarity on a whether or not domestic debt will be re-structured.

After previous currency crises, rates come down after an IMF deal is approved and foreign loans resume and confidence in the currency is re-stabilished following a float.

This time however there has been no clear float, though the external sector is largely stable and foreign funding is delayed until a debt re-structure deal is made.

Sri Lanka’s external troubles usually come because the bureaucrats do not believe market rates are correct when credit demand picks up and mis-uses monetary tools given in 1950 by the parliament to suppress rates, blowing the balance of payments apart.

The result of suppressed rates by the central bank are steep spikes in rates to stop the resulting currency crisis.

A reserve collecting central bank has little or no leeway to control interest rates (monetary policy independence) without creating external troubles, which is generally expressed as the ‘impossible trinity of monetary policy objectives’.

However, it has not prevented officials from trying repeatedly to suppress rates, perhaps expecting different results.

After suppressed rates – supposedly to help businesses – trigger currency crises, the normalization combined with a currency collapse leads to impoverishment of the population.

The impoverishment through depreciation leads to a consumption shock, which also leads to revenue losses in businesses.

The suppressed rates then lead to bad loans.

In the 2020/2022 currency crisis the sovereign default has also led to more problems at banks. Several state enterprises also cannot pay back loans.

“…[T]he bad debt that is being carried by the banks is mainly from the private sector or the government sector,” President Wickremesinghe said.

“Keep the government sector aside. We’re dealing with it. How do you handle it? Look, one of our major areas of are the small and medium industries. You can’t allow them to collapse, but they’re in a bad way.”

Classical economists and analysts have called for new laws to block the ability to central bank to suppress rates in the first place so that currency crises and depreciation does not take place in the first place.

Then politicians like Wickremesinghe do not have to take drastic and unpopular measures to fix crises and there will be stability like in East Asia.

Sri Lanka had stability until 1950 when the central bank was created by abolishing an East Asia style currency board. The currency board kept the country relatively stable through two World Wars and a Great Depression.

In 1948 after the war (WWII) was over “we stood second to Japan” Wickremesinghe said.

“But we started destroying it from the sixties and the seventies,” he said. :We started rebuilding an economy, which was affected by a (civil) war, and thereafter the way we went, is best not described here.”

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