SEATTLE, Washington — Sri Lanka is an island country located in South Asia known for its tropical temperatures, rich cultures and diverse wildlife. Like many other nations, Sri Lanka has a long way to go in terms of gender equality. Despite the progressive strides the country has made in the last couple of decades, Sri Lanka is still ranked 102 out of 153 countries in the gender equality index. Gender stereotypes and outdated cultural norms inhibit women from having access to equal education, employment and economic opportunities. One particularly pressing aspect of gender discrimination is a lack of access to safe and affordable menstrual hygiene in Sri Lanka.
There is a cultural stigma toward menstruation that has laid the groundwork for many discriminatory policies in Sri Lanka. A survey from 2015 found that more than half of Sri Lankan girls had to miss school when they were menstruating and another study found that 60% of teachers associated menstrual blood with impurity. In a survey of adolescent girls in Sri Lanka, when asked why they missed school while on their periods, about 68% to 81% mentioned pain and physical discomfort and 23% to 40% said that is was due to fear of staining clothes.
High Cost of Hygiene Products
A major component of period poverty in Sri Lanka is as a result of the high cost of feminine hygiene products. About 52% of Sri Lanka’s general population is women and yet, access to affordable menstrual hygiene products is a rarity. Products such as menstrual pads are very heavily taxed, and up until September of 2018, the levy on imported menstrual products was more than 100%.
On average, women are on their period for about five days and use about four pads a day, costing women in Sri Lanka about LKR 520 a month. For perspective, the average monthly income for households in the poorest 20% is LKR 14,843, effectively forcing people who menstruate to pay 3.5% of their household income on a natural, biological process that is entirely out of their control.
Although the tax levy was reduced to about 63% in 2019 and is at 52% as of August 2020, it is still far too high. Despite the reduced taxation, menstrual products such as pads and tampons continue to be unaffordable for the majority of women and girls in Sri Lanka. Being unable to afford menstrual products affects not only student’s school attendance but will later go on to affect their educational outcomes and future employment prospects.
Unhygienic Practices Due to Inaccessibility
Unaffordability and inaccessibility of menstrual hygiene products have negative effects on women’s health. Lack of access to the proper products results in affordable or makeshift replacements that may be unsafe or unhygienic. Not only can poor menstrual hygiene result in reproductive tract infections, but a study conducted in India showed a link between cervical cancer—the second most common type of cancer among Sri Lankan women—and cloths used to replace menstrual pads.
Additionally, the lack of access to proper menstrual hygiene affects participation in the labor force. A study of garment workers in the nearby country of Bangladesh discovered that providing a subsidy for menstrual hygiene products led to a decrease in women being absent from work. The study also showed that providing the subsidy led to an increase in productivity, showing the potential improvements that better access to menstrual hygiene products could have for women in Sri Lanka.
One possible way to make sanitary napkins more accessible is to slash the current taxation rates on feminine products and remove import levies. Not only would this largely benefit women in Sri Lanka, but it would stimulate industry and be advantageous for the economy as well. Additionally, the Sri Lanka Water Supply and Sanitation Improvement Project, which works to increase access to piped water services and improved sanitation, is building period-friendly toilets that include discreet waste disposal and incineration facilities for used menstrual hygiene products in Sri Lankan schools.
In order for Sri Lanka to make significant progress in the name of gender equality, they must confront the cultural stigma towards menstruation as well as the inaccessibility of period hygiene products. Making menstrual hygiene products more affordable would not only be beneficial towards women’s health and education, but it would have a positive impact on the industry and would encourage economic growth.
– Shreeya Sharma