Women lawmakers and rights activists have urged the Sri Lankan government to remove the tax on sanitary napkins and list them as an essential item.
Lawmaker Rohini Kaviratne said the government is now trying to earn income from women by imposing a 15 percent "menses tax," just like the British imposed a body tax.
"In 1848, the governor Lord Torrington imposed license fees including a body tax and a dog tax. This government will be known in history as the government that imposed a 'menses tax' on women," Kaviratne said in a statement on Nov. 24.
Women MPs and rights activists argued that the former government removed 40 percent of the tax on sanitary napkins but the new government increased the sanitary napkin tax by 15 percent from the budget allocation for 2021.
They argue that prices of menstrual hygiene products will rise due to the increase in the tax on such products which they say will become luxury items.
MP Diana Gamage said sanitary napkins should be classified as an essential commodity as women account for 52 percent of the population of Sri Lanka.
"I urge the prime minister and the president to make this an essential commodity," Gamage said in the debate on the 2021 budget on Nov. 24.
"Fifty percent of girls do not go to school every month due to this reason, therefore I request the government to pay attention to this,” she said.
According to UNICEF and WaterAid, 60 percent of parents in the country do not allow their daughters to go to school during their periods and 80 percent of teachers think that bathing should be avoided during that period.
The minimum price of a sanitary napkin is around 125 rupees, which is too expensive for poor girls.
A Catholic nun who teaches at a school in Colombo said cultural taboos and misinformation affect the hygiene of schoolgirls and undermine gender equality.
"These parental customs lead to discrimination, causing girls and women to miss out their education and other opportunities," said the nun who wished to remain anonymous.
"The backwardness of schoolgirls does not give them the opportunity to acquire science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills equally in education."
Females account for 35 percent of the workforce but opportunities for them to advance in employment are very limited.
Although women represent over 52 percent of the population, they account for only 5.3 percent out of 225 legislators.
Minister of Fisheries Kanchana Wijesekera said in a tweet that the rumor that the budget has increased the price of sanitary napkins is untrue.
Aruni Vithanage, a family counselor, said on average women spend between 2,500 and 3,000 days of their lives in menstruation.
"We advise girls to change sanitary napkins every four hours but sometimes schoolgirls and factory workers do not have the facilities to do so, therefore there are times when they use the same sanitary napkin until they leave in the evening," she said.
Vithanage said women will never escape this problem unless they are educated in school about reproductive health.
"It is not up to the parents to educate them on proper hygiene practices as even some parents do not have proper knowledge on the subject," she said.
"It is a social responsibility to facilitate menstrual hygiene for girls and women. They need help from the family, factory owners, teachers and society to understand their physical and mental problems they face in those days."