In 2014, WASH United, a German non-profit, initiated the commemoration of Menstrual Hygiene Day to raise awareness of the importance of Menstrual Hygiene!
Eight years down the line, Menstrual Hygiene Day has become a global advocacy platform amalgamating the voices of various groups of people and actors with different focus but one common mission - to promote good menstrual health and hygiene for women and girls.
Over the last three years, the theme has been a call to action. This year, however, it's been taken a step further, urging duty bearers to go beyond promises and commit to translating these into tangible actions.
As with most commemorative days, Menstrual Hygiene Day risks becoming an annual fad where once every year, all the good noise that can be made about the need to promote good menstrual health and hygiene is made, only for everyone to go back to their little corners without much changing.
There are those who are yet to come to an understanding of why something as personal as menstruation should be talked about, much more given attention at the global level. It is for people like this that the commemoration serves a purpose. For how do we hope to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 3 (Good Health and Wellbeing), 4 (Quality Education), 5 (Gender Equality), 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), 10 (Reduced Inequalities) and 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), when an integral factor to their attainment – the full participation of girls and women, is not recognised as such?
And this is where I confess that I was once one of them. I did not understand why a natural biological process - a personal one at that, should be given such attention. That is, until I joined WaterAid Ghana.
WaterAid is an international non-governmental organisation focused on water, sanitation and hygiene. Since 1981, WaterAid Ghana has been working to support the Government of Ghana's efforts to provide sustainable access to water, sanitation and hygiene services. I believed in WaterAid's vision that it was unfair for people to lack access to necessities such as water and access to dignified sanitation. What I had initially failed to see was how this linked with the very personal and almost taboo topic of menstruation. For those yet to see this link, answering this question might help.
What do women and girls need to hygienically manage their periods and with dignity?
• Clean Water!
• Access to a private space to change!
• Soap to clean themselves and
• Safe disposal facilities!
Why this took me, a woman, so long to see, may be excused by the fact that I never lacked any of these necessities and as a result, was not in the position to readily see how those who lacked it had a totally different experience of menstruation from me.
WaterAid Ghana in its just ended strategy (2016 -2021), focused on Menstrual Hygiene Management as one of the five key hygiene behaviours to promote equity and girl child education. As a result, schoolgirls were reached with menstrual hygiene education. Specifically, 291 girls from four schools in the Kassena Nankana West and Bongo districts of the Upper East Region were equipped with the skills for producing reusable sanitary pads.
Twenty-four women from two communities in the same districts were also equipped with skills and tools for production of reusable sanitary pads, improving their livelihood outcomes in the process.
According to the 2020 census, 50.7 per cent of the 30.8million Ghanaian population are females. 8,224,483 of this number fall in the 15-49 age bracket. This age bracket, according to the Ghana Statistical Services is the reproductive age group.
Going by this definition and ignoring the fact that most girls experience menarche earlier and women experience menopause beyond age 49, over eight million Ghanaian women and young girls pay a 20 per cent tax on sanitary towels and tampons and an additional 12.5 per cent import duty VAT and a 2.5 per cent NHIL just because they menstruate.
This is because, according to the Ghana Revenue Authority's tax guidelines, these sanitary products are luxury products. A natural bodily function and biological process that women have absolutely no control over, is described as a luxury for which taxes and levies totalling 35 per cent are paid.
The ability of women and young girls to safely manage their menstrual period is fundamental to their total wellbeing. However, the system has been set up in a way that unfairly denies them this ability.
There were glimmers of hope when the Vice President, Dr Mahamudu Bawumia, announced as part of the NPP's Manifesto highlight's governments intention to scrap the 20 per cent luxury tax on imported sanitary products. Hon. Sarah Adwoa Safo, in her address during the commemoration of MH Day 2021, indicated that the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection was working with the Ministry of Finance to scrap the taxes. 365 sunsets later, and these promises are yet to materialise.
It is for this reason that the rallying call for this year’s commemoration is COMMITMENT. We need our duty bearers, who have the power, to be on the right side of history by ensuring that the misogynistic and sexist tax on sanitary products is scrapped to make these products more affordable particularly for the poor.
The absence of water, sanitation and hygiene to facilitate menstrual hygiene management and the existence of taxes on menstrual management products are two of the major stumbling blocks to the attainment of gender equality as young girls and women.
Within all this, there is space for discussion on the local manufacture of sanitary products and the potential for this to make them more accessible and affordable.
Until we get there, the least that our duty bearers can do is to show their commitment to level the playing field for all by ensuring that all schools have access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities as well as scrapping the taxes on sanitary products.
Menstruation is not a luxury neither is it a choice girls and women opt for. It is a necessity of life. Literally.
The writer is the Ag. Programmes Manager, WaterAid Ghana