Women praise Kibaki's directive to drop tax on sanitary towels

Women in Kenya have praised President Mwai Kibaki's promise to waive heavy taxes levied on women's sanitary towels as a move which will greatly enhance women's reproductive health and reduce the costly burden of hygiene on poor women.

"There is no need of tax at all," Beatrice Elachi, a project officer with the grass-roots body the National Council of Women of Kenya, told IRIN on Monday. "Why should the government tax women on sanitary towels, yet this is a natural issue and not out of choice?" she queried.

Women leaders led by Health Minister Charity Ngilu had on Friday called on Kibaki during the country's first National Women's Conference on HIV/AIDS held in the capital, Nairobi, to intervene and reduce the cost of sanitary towels for women, the majority of whom were resorting to unhygienic practices such as the use of old rags and toilet paper, thereby exposing themselves to infections.

"You shall not pay a cent more. I instruct that manufacturing companies, traders and all those concerned to immediately stop charging extra," Kibaki told more than 4,000 delegates at the conference.

Dorcas Amolo, the reproductive health programme manager at the women's umbrella body Maendeleo ya Wanawake [Kiswahili for women in development], said Kibaki's directive would go a long way towards keeping girls in school and preventing sexual exploitation of schoolgirls, as well as curbing high rates of dropout among girls.

"I am very excited, because many girls will no longer drop out of school because of embarrassment of poor hygiene. Many parents have not been able to afford to pay for sanitary towels," Amolo told IRIN. "If it is going to be cheaper and affordable, quite a number of girls will afford it," she added.

The unaffordable prices of sanitary towels in Kenya have largely been blamed on the 16 percent Value Added Tax and other related taxes. Thus a packet containing eight sanitary pads costs as much 100 shillings (about US $1.50), a price too high for majority of women in a country where about 54 percent of the people live on less than a dollar a day. In consequence, over 50 percent of Kenyan women, especially those in rural areas, were locked out of the use of these hygienic sanitary towels, Amolo said.

"This is good news for women who have been choosing between buying bread and sanitary towels. I know from my work in rural areas that the majority of women cannot afford to spend 100 shillings," she added.

The women, however, urged Kibaki's government to put in place a clear policy stating the zero taxation on sanitary products to protect women consumers from any future indirect taxation on the products.

"We know he [Kibaki] commented while knowing that this has been giving the government a lot of tax," Elachi said. "We need him to come up with a clearly gazetted Act stating that women's sanitary towels will be zero taxed and that the price will be reduced," she added.