By Nushla Pradhan

Period poverty has persisted as a longstanding barrier to safe, hygienic, and dignified menstruation in Nepal as menstruating individuals with low-income still struggle to access and afford period products.

Amidst the social ostracization, restrictions, and lack of menstrual hygiene management, Nepal Government continues to impose luxury taxes on period products despite it unreasonably affecting individuals that are already vulnerable to structural inequalities.

Nepal government imposes 13 percent Value Added Tax (VAT) and 15 percent custom tax on menstrual hygiene products. Additionally, the government does not even deem these products that remain indispensable during periods as ‘essential items’.

Meanwhile, the 13 percent VAT on other goods and services of basic needs like medicines, daily food items and even contraceptives for family planning, including condoms, are exempted.

In Nepal, a revolutionary step on safe motherhood and family planning took place as a result of the relentless efforts by various NGOs, INGOs and international development partners, whereby condoms and contraceptives were actively distributed and ultimately the 13% VAT was exempted in light of the importance of family planning.

“This shows that if a product is an essential item, the 13% VAT can be exempted,” said Shubhangi Rana, co-founder of Pad2go Nepal, a social enterprise that aims to create a positive change in the Menstrual Health sector through innovative ideas and outreach programs.

However, period products in Nepal continue to be viewed as luxury items, while there are millions of menstruating individuals at risk of contracting dangerous health consequences as they opt for unhygienic alternatives due to poverty.

South Asian countries like India and Maldives have already recognized this issue exempted the tax on menstrual hygiene products.

“It is not about making a comparison between the importance of family planning and menstrual health management, but a call for the government to equally prioritize menstrual hygiene,” said Rana. Hence, it is crucial for the government to understand the alarming state of menstrual hygiene in Nepal and therefore recognize that utmost attention to this issue is required.

Taking into account an average age group of menstruators, each menstruating individual requires at least 7,296 pads in a lifetime, which amounts to a total cost of Rs 87,552. And without the 13% VAT, a menstruating individual would be able to save up to Rs 11,380 in a lifetime.

Periods consequently become an economically burdensome process to over one third of the 30 million Nepali population living close to poverty line. The lack of urgency in considering such challenges faced by menstruating individuals prevails within the legal system as the 13% VAT not only hinders affordability but also massively impacts the accessibility of menstrual hygiene products.

“Since period products are not in the list of essential items, sanitary napkins could not reach many villages and rural areas in Nepal during the previous lockdowns as the police stopped vehicles that carried menstrual hygiene products,” said Rana.

“People wanted to buy pads during the pandemic, but they were barred from doing so citing the lockdown.”

“The same thing happened during the 2015 earthquake. Menstrual products were not added in relief packages, leaving menstruators without safe means to manage their periods. The government has still not learned from previous crisis,” added Rana.

Considering all the constraints as a result of the ‘period tax’ in ensuring accessibility and affordability of menstrual hygiene products in the country, a public outrage was seen through the recent symbolic protest organized by Nepal Youth Congress in collaboration with Pad2go Nepal. The protest ignited the “#RaatoKarMaafGar (exempt the red tax) campaign” as an initiative to pressurize the government to remove the 13% VAT levied on all period products.

Additionally, the campaign has also been focusing on other factors affecting menstruating individuals. Rana added, “Removing the 13% VAT on menstrual products alone isn’t enough as there are several other issues that require careful consideration during policy making.”

According to the Department of Customs, Nepal imported sanitary pads worth Rs 1.17 billion in the fiscal year 2020/2021 and the government made about Rs 342.31 million through taxes. Tax removal on sanitary pads would not only impact the government’s revenue but also put domestic pad manufacturers at a disadvantage as compared to foreign manufacturers.

Therefore, the #RaatoKarMaafGar campaign also focuses on the need to implement policies that protect domestic manufacturers and promote locally made products. The government has, however, made a commendable effort in this field to encourage local pad manufacturers by providing tax exemption for three years from the beginning of the production.

In addition to this, policies regarding the Maximum Retail Price (MRP) also need to be regulated effectively throughout Nepal. Without proper regulation, the same pads being sold in Kathmandu are sold at double or even higher rates than the actual MRP in rural areas.

“To further solidify our advocacy, our campaign has created a loose network with 35 individuals and organizations, comprising four different working groups. These groups include Social Media Advocacy, Grassroot level advocacy, Innovative Protest Collaboration and Stakeholder Analysis and Engagement,” said Rana.

With the ongoing positive outreach programs there seems to be hope for the future of menstrual health in Nepal. The government, meanwhile, needs to monitor its campaigns to ensure proper implementation of their policies within any sector after formulation of laws. Although removal of taxes on period products isn’t sufficient to eradicate period poverty, it is undoubtedly an important step towards commencing a sustainable approach to improve the status of menstrual hygiene and period poverty in Nepal.