Women on the minimum wage in Ghana have to spend one in every seven dollars they earn on sanitary towels, according to research by the BBC.
The BBC surveyed nine countries in Africa to see how affordable menstrual products are. We compared the minimum wage with the local cost of the cheapest sanitary napkin and found that many women could not reach it.
While Ghana was the country with the least affordable menstrual products of those we surveyed, women across Africa are struggling with “menstrual poverty” – something activists are trying to change.
Joyce, a 22-year-old Ghanaian, cannot afford to buy what she needs when she has her period.
“The only person available to help wants sex before giving me the money. I have to do it because I need pads,” she told the BBC.
In six of the countries studied by the BBC, minimum wage women have to spend between 3 and 13% of their salary to buy two packs of eight pads – which many women will need each month.
As a grocery store assistant, Joyce lives with a family friend and lives off tips. Previously, she could afford to pay for the cost of a sanitary napkin when it cost 4.88 Ghanaian cedis (45 US cents; 35 UK pence) per pack.
However, after the government increased taxes on sanitary products, a pack of sanitary napkins now costs 20 cedis, putting them out of her reach.
The price hikes caused women to protest outside Ghana’s parliament in June 2023.
Joyce resorted to using toilet paper as a makeshift pad, but when that proved unsustainable, she said she ran out of options and gave in to sexual demands in exchange for money for pads. But Joyce’s struggle is just one of many.
The BBC used the statutory minimum wage in each of the nine countries surveyed and the lowest priced sanitary towels available locally to calculate its findings.
Ghana turned out to have the most expensive products in relation to monthly income.
According to our research, a woman in Ghana earning a minimum wage of $26 a month would have to spend $3, or one out of every $7 she earns, to buy two packs of eight pads.
That means for every 80 cedi they earn, they have to spend 11 cedi on sanitary napkins alone.
By comparison, women in the US or UK would spend significantly less. For example, in the US, minimum wage earners would spend $3 of $1,200.
Francisca Sarpong Owusu, a researcher at the Center for Democratic Development (CDD) in Ghana, says many vulnerable girls and women use cloth rags during their periods that they line with plastic sheets, cement paper bags and dried plantain stems because they don’t feel disposable hygiene. can afford. towels.
And the problem extends far beyond Ghana. The global impact is astonishing.
According to the World Bank, 500 million women worldwide do not have access to menstrual products.
They also lack adequate menstrual hygiene facilities, such as clean water and toilets.
What’s tax got to do with it?
Many menstrual health activists say doing away with “tampon taxes” is one way to help women get closer to accessing and paying for sanitary products.
Tampon tax refers to the various types of taxes levied on feminine hygiene products, including menstrual products such as pads, menstrual cups, and may include sales tax, VAT, and others.
Campaigners go on to say that governments still view women’s products as luxury items, rather than consumer goods or basic necessities, meaning the tax levied on them is akin to a “luxury tax”, imposed on items deemed non-essential and that only rich people will buy. . These taxes are usually higher than on basic goods.
In 2004, Kenya became the first country in the world to abolish the tax on menstrual products. In 2016, it went ahead with abolishing the tax on raw materials used to make sanitary napkins.
As a result, the price of sanitary napkins has fallen in Kenya, with the cheapest period products in 2023 at 50 Kenyan shillings (35 US cents; 27 UK pence), making it the country with the most affordable sanitary napkins in our study.
However, female politicians and campaigners are pushing for further tax exemptions in the hope of lowering prices even further.
In South Africa, Nokuzola Ndwandwe, a menstrual hygiene activist, has been working since 2014 to abolish VAT on menstrual products. In April 2019, she won a “monumental victory” when the government abolished the 15% tax on sanitary napkins and pads. announced free sanitary pads in public schools.
Countries that do not tax sanitary napkins and allow manufacturers to tax the materials used (zero rate) tend to have cheaper products.
But is tax exemption enough to ensure women and girls have access to sanitary towels?
In 2019, the Tanzanian government announced that it was reintroducing VAT on sanitary products, just one year after its abolition. This was after consumer complaints that prices had not fallen in stores and markets.
Campaigners say prices did not fall because the tax was reintroduced before the product supply chain had time to adjust.
Across Africa and the rest of the world, the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products due to the high cost or because they are not available in rural or remote areas has had a huge impact on millions of women.
Although no research has been done on the number of girls missing school worldwide, studies in different regions and countries show that thousands of girls miss many days of school every year because of their periods.
A survey in Kenya found that 95% of menstruating girls missed one to three days a month, while another 70% reported a negative impact on their grades, and more than 50% said they fell behind in school because of menstruation.
Marakie Tesfaye is a founding member of Jegnit Ethiopia, an uplifting women and girls movement that has pushed for tax exemptions and distributed reusable sanitary napkin sets to girls in Ethiopia,
“We found data showing that girls in Ethiopia would miss as many as 100 days in a school year calendar, and if they missed school, we noticed that several things would happen,” she says.
“They’d fall behind, repeat a class because they didn’t have catch-up classes, drop out and get married or work as housekeepers, with little chance of ever going on to college.”
Not just a women’s issue
Ibrahim Faleye was about 10 years old when he started buying sanitary napkins for his sister. Growing up around girls in the Nigerian metropolis of Lagos, he thought it was normal for any young man to do.
“We were an average family and we could afford our pads, so I thought it was the same for other families. When I found out that many people can’t afford the products, I was shocked,” he says.
Now 26 years old, the public health expert has focused his work on menstrual health and education for girls and boys through his NGO, Pad Bank, with the goal of ending menstrual poverty and helping boys stop shaming girls.
“In Nigeria, we have a culture where men are not allowed to talk about menstruation. We take the men through that process so that they can understand and care for women.”
South African campaigner Nokuzola lives with endometriosis, a disease in which tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside and can make periods very painful. She often had a hard time at work.
“I was on a male-dominated team and I wasn’t comfortable saying I felt sick. I was embarrassed and embarrassed and worried about how it would affect my chances,” she says.
“I thought about the millions of women going through the same thing. At that point I felt it was time to deconstruct the story and stigma of the end period.”
So what does period justice look like?
UNFPA defines menstrual poverty as “the struggle many low-income women and girls face as they try to afford menstrual products”.
The UN says general menstrual hygiene means women and girls have access to clean water and soap, accessible and clean toilets and latrines and the ability to enter these facilities in privacy without stigma and disgrace, coupled with menstrual education for both boys and girls. girls.
Commenting on the BBC inquiry, Nokuzola says: “It shouldn’t be like this. The fact that a woman has to choose between a loaf of bread, the support of her family and menstrual products is really sad and worrying.
“This is a natural, biological process that occurs every month, so you have to neglect your autonomy over your body for the survival of your family. Menstrual products should be free.”
Nokuzola is now working to pass a menstrual health law in South Africa so that menstrual products can be recognized as a human right and women like Joyce don’t have to resort to desperate measures to get them.
“We are suffering, I want to beg our government to get rid of the tax on sanitary napkins. The truth is that we go through a lot just to menstruate. Why should I beg or starve myself just to menstruate? I don’t think it’s fair at all ‘ says Joyce.
Data Research and Analysis by Brian Osweta and Ruth Mulandi