In a small room down a warren of streets in Kithulwatte in Colombo, Fathima Rifka is making her own sanitary napkins by hand. This is the 24-year-old’s first job. One year in, she has been promoted to the position of a trainer, and has begun to teach other women from this low-income neighbourhood how to make organic, affordable pads.
Whatever excess is left after the women take what they need for their own use is sold to other women in the community under the brand name Sinidu, literally meaning ‘soft’. The pads are snapped up: “There is a lot of demand,” says Rifka, who has sold 100 packets of 10 pads in just the last month. The packets cost Rs.60 to produce and Rifka sells them for Rs.75, keeping the margin for herself.
The technology that allows this small social enterprise to thrive was imported by the Sri Lanka chapter of the SAARC Chamber Women Entrepreneurs Council. The pads are made using wood pulp patented by India’s ‘Pad Man’ Arunachalam Muruganantham, an innovator and activist so committed that he famously tested his own products by donning a “uterus” made from a football bladder filled with goat’s blood. His story was made into a Bollywood film in 2018.
Rifka and the other women watched the film together. Watching she says she felt empowered: “Without fear I can recommend these pads to women because I make them myself,” she says. Rifka’s 21-year-old colleague Fathima Nusrat adds that they are very grateful to the man who developed this design: “I want to take it forward even more and help more girls. There is a lot of goodness in this effort.”
The SAARC women timed the launch of their pilot project – marking the debut of Arunachalam’s technology outside India – to the day Pad Man premiered. In January, a year later, the Kithulwatte factory opened its doors. Today, they still rely on Arunachalam’s organization to send them the wood pulp for their pads, but designs of his equipment are open source.
“The machines are so simple that we were able to start making these in Sri Lanka,” says Jazaya Hassandeen, treasurer of the SAARC Chamber Women Entrepreneurs Council. The new equipment was deployed for the first time on March 14 in Sri Lanka’s Magazine Prison, where a new factory will allow female inmates to start making their own pads. Jazaya notes that the technology will soon be debuted not only in other low-income communities but in other prisons as well.
Sinidu is affordable where commercially produced napkins are not. A Sinidu packet is nearly half the price of anything else on the market. Other local brands typically sell for between Rs.100 to Rs. 140, while imported brands can cost as much as Rs.500. Tampons, many of which are imported, can cost an eye-watering Rs.1800 in some cases.
These costs have everything to do with an opaque taxation system riddled with para-tariffs. taxes and before 2018, they were even more expensive. Applicable taxes on imported sanitary napkins included all the following: 30% customs duty, 30% cess or Rs. 300/kg (whichever is higher), 7.5% ports and aviation levy, and domestic taxes (VAT 15% and NBT 2%). Locally manufactured pads are also expensive, with costs rising thanks to the addition of a 15 percent VAT and a 2 percent Nation Building Tax (NBT).
“In the last decade or so Sri Lanka has seen a proliferation of para-tariffs on imported products, resulting in an escalation of costs to the consumer,” Mangala Samaraweera, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Finance tells the Thomson-Reuters Foundation.
The total effective tax rates on sanitary napkins used to be over 100% till September 2018, when the Ministry of Finance announced the removal of a 30 percent Cess making pads substantially more affordable to women. A complicated calculation has now brought down taxes on imported sanitary napkins to 62.6%.
While she welcomes the progress, the current tax is still too high considering that women make up over 50 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, says Anuki Premachandra of Manager, Research Communication at The Advocata Institute, an independent policy think tank. She also points out that the prices of locally manufactured pads are further impacted by taxes on imported raw materials like Polypropylene.
The issue simply doesn’t get the attention it deserves, Anuki emphasizes: “People are enraged about the cost of carrots, [another import heavily affected by taxes] but when it comes to taxes on sanitary napkins, they dismiss it as a women’s issue.”
Girls pay the price
Girls are the first to feel the sting. Rifka recalls her first period, and how her mother gave her rags to use to stem the bleeding. They were unreliable and she would often stain her clothes, but that was nothing compared to the inconvenience of cleaning them.
“We only get water for three hours in our neighbourhood,” says Rifka now, describing having to line up at the tap with other women and wait for her turn. Washing a bloodstained cloth in public is embarrassing, and so women rush through the process and tend to hide the clothes instead of drying them out in the sun.
When it comes to girls of school-going age, the challenges are multiplied. Many families who cannot afford to buy pads simply keep their girls home. “The issue with Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) is that women and girls don’t see it as a basic right, which they should,” says Radika Sivakumaran, Child Survival and Development Officer with UNICEF, adding that girls with disabilities and those having to travel long distances are likely to be disproportionately affected.
In fact, in a 2015 survey of adolescent Sri Lankan girls conducted by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education Services over half – 51% – 62% – said they were not allowed to go to school when they had their period. UNFPA’s 2018 country snapshot notes that 60% of teachers thought menstrual blood was impure while 80% thought bathing during menstruation should be avoided.
Extrapolating from these results, Sri Lankan girls lose (very conservatively) every year,” says Amita Arudpragasam, who began to research the topic as part of her Master’s in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
The same is true across South Asia, where a third of girls miss school during their periods. In Nepal, 84 per cent of girls who missed a whole day or part of the school day used cloths to manage their menstruation, while in India it was estimated that girls typically miss 1-2 days of school per month due to menstruation.
As Amita notes, school absenteeism may only be one way in which educational performance is impacted, and it is likely this also contributes in some way to Sri Lanka’s lower than average female labour force participation rate.
In Sri Lanka, the government recognizes how this issue could also be playing a role in Sri Lanka’s low female labour force participation rate, which in 2017 stood at 36.6% and has stagnated in recent years.
The Minister of Finance, saying he is looking into how taxes could be reduced further to ease the pressure on women’s wallets. “From a broader trade policy perspective, we have announced the phasing out of all remaining para-tariffs on imported goods – a major cost of living reduction initiative,” said Minister Samaraweera.
Meanwhile, women in Sri Lanka’s low-income communities will continue to turn to Sinidu in the absence of affordable alternatives. For their part, the SAARC Chamber Women Entrepreneurs Council hopes to export Arunachalam’s technology to Nepal and Bangladesh where women face many of the same challenges, says Chairperson Rifa Mustapha. “The strength of this approach is that it is community-based,” she explains, emphasizing: “It is “by the women, for the women, and to the women”.
A version of this story was published by the Thomson-Reuters Foundation on April 4, 2019. Text and pictures by Smriti Daniel