Members of Parliament want the government to provide free and universal access to sanitary towels to poor women and to drop the value added tax on unavoidable sanitary products.
This week, Parliament’s portfolio committee on women instructed the Department of Women in the Presidency to ensure that sanitary pads are available to women and schoolgirls across the country every day.
It has been widely reported that millions of schoolgirls miss about a week of school every month for lack of sanitary pads.
MPs also decried the general high price of sanitary towels, saying it was about time that the Department of Trade and Industry introduced zero VAT rating on such products and they also called for South Africa to lead in the fall of the so-called “pink tax”.
“Sanitary pads are not only for health purposes but are going to be an enabler for girls that are unable to buy the pads,” said ANC MP Patricia Chueu.
Chueu said it was the responsibility of the Department of Women to enable every girl to go to school.
“So, it’s not only for health purposes. You have to enable that child to go to school every day because the concern is that women are illiterate. If sanitary towels make girls not go to school, it should be your primary concern,” she added.
Chueu suggested the government was failing girls in this regard. “We have four departments – the departments of women, health, basic education and social development – that are not enabling one child.”
She said the Department of Women should partner with others to ensure that there are sanitary towels in each and every school every day.
“It should be there in your annual performance plan. You don’t need money to do that. Money is there at Social Development. All you do is monitor it,” she said.
Chueu instructed officials of the Department of Women to negotiate and lobby the Department of Trade and Industry to reduce the price of sanitary towels as “they are too expensive” adding that “menstrual periods are ordinary things that women can do nothing about”.
“On basic food, you reduce prices and on sanitary pads, we never say anything and yet it affects all women. Make sure it becomes VAT free,” added Chueu.
Her call was supported by MPs from other parties.
Inkatha Freedom Party’s Liezl van der Merwe – who was the first to raise the matter of sanitary pads – said in a country where it is reported that about seven million children miss school because they don’t have access to sanitary pads, the matter should be one of the core goals of the Department of Women.
Van der Merwe said the issue of women who don’t have access to sanitary pads is one of the biggest issues South Africa faced at the moment.
“The most appropriate measure would be lobbying the government or the Department of Health to ensure that women who can’t afford sanitary pads are able to access them through a subsidy.
“The Department of Health provides condoms; they make lots of budget available for that. Shouldn’t we as a committee and as a department not lobby the Department of Health to ensure they are able to access sanitary towels, or at least they are subsidised?”
The DA’s Nomsa Marchesi said cooperatives should be the ones that produce the sanitary towels, where women are trained to make them and can therefore benefit from producing pads, and not men.
The Department of Women’s Bernedette Muthien agreed with the MPs that large areas of improvement were needed. Muthien did however point out that the matter resides with the Department of Social Development.
She added: “Politically, I’m deeply committed to free and affordable sanitary towels. At one time our government refused to do the free universal condom distribution. That shifted. Even with the ARVs there was a shift at some point.”
She said a collective campaign around sanitary dignity was needed.
Another official from the Department of Women, Mmabatho Ramagoshi, said the whole world was talking about “pink tax” and South Africa could lead in asking:
“Why are women products so expensive including soaps, perfumes and sanitary towels?”
The Department of Social Development distributes sanitary pads as part of social relief of distress whereby they include what they call a “dignity pack” for distressed families or communities.