Women from poor families in Rwanda claim sanitary pads are still so expensive that they cannot afford them. As a last resort, some low income earning women and girls in rural areas use cloth pieces during their menstrual cycle.
The Government of Rwanda exempted taxes on sanitary pads in December 2019, in a move to lower the cost and make the products more affordable to women and girls; according to the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion.
Despite this scrapping of the Value Added Tax (VAT), sanitary pads remain expensive at local markets and many women and girls cannot afford them.
“A pack of sanitary pads on the market sells between 700Rwf and 1,200Rwf and above depending on the quality you need,” said a lady from Musanze District who preferred anonymity.
Niyonsaba Philomene from Nzahaha Sector in Rusizi District said “the cost is increasing every day; you can find it at 700Rwf in some shops, but the price raises up to 2,000Rwf depending on the quality you need. “This is not an affordable price for ladies and young girls of our region” she added.
Tuyambaze Chantal, 35, from Cyuve Sector in Musanze District, says “pads are too expensive; they are not for us rural women.”
Emotionally expressing her concern, she said “You cannot work in a farm and get paid 1,000Rwf and go to buy sanitary pads at 1,200Rwf. It cannot work which is why we use pieces of cloth when we get periods,” she said.
High risk in the use of cloth pieces
Specialists in Sanitation and Hygiene highlight that the use of pieces of cloth during menstruation is too risky. “Women and girls are likely to get infections because of those cloths,” said a healthcare woman at the Centre Hospitalière Universitaire de Kigali (CHUK). She added that the lack of affordable pads on the markets is a serious problem and has a big impact on their lives. This is even worse when access to clean water and decent toilets is still lacking.
School girls’ rooms helpful but not a lasting solution
According to UNICEF, approximately over 18% of girls in Rwanda miss between 3 to 5 days of schools every month due to a lack of access to menstrual products. The high cost of pads coupled with the fear to be mocked or shamed are among the reasons girls either miss classes or drop out of schools.
Currently a special room for school girls during menstruation, locally known as “Icyumba cy’Umukobwa” is in place. The room provides schoolgirls with a safe space to manage their periods, access to menstrual hygiene products and sexual reproductive health information, including schoolgirls who cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. Icyumba cy’Umukobwa is an initiative by different institutions including the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion and Imbuto Foundation which aims at minimizing girls missing classes and dropping out of schools due to the lack of sanitary pads.
Reports from the Ministry of Education confirm that these rooms at schools have contributed towards reducing cases of girls missing and dropping out of school because of their menstruation.
What about girls and women who are not at school?
Despite the good initiative, all girls and women who need sanitary pads are not or do not stay at school so that they can get access to these pads from schoolgirl’s room. Human rights activists urge the government to do its best so that sanitary pads are accessible on markets. Access to sanitary towels is not a privilege but a human right.
“Scrapping of VAT was a step in the right direction, but pads are still too expensive on the markets,” one insists.
What makes sanitary pads expensive?
Two months ago, The New Times, a daily publication in Rwanda, revealed that VAT is still levied on pads across shops in Kigali. The publication mentioned in its article that upon purchasing sanitary pads in several stores of Kigali priced between 700Rwf and 1,000Rwf and electronic billing machine (EBM) generated receipts featured VAT as an applicable tax.
One businessman says “Manipulating EBM is punishable by law and it is considered as an intention to evade taxes. Their regulation falls under the Rwanda Revenue Authority’s responsibility.”
However, RRA insists that VAT is no longer levied since the waiver announcement in December which was meant to take immediate effect.
RRA explained that shop owners are responsible for resetting EBM gadgets with details and applicable commodities and taxes.
The disparity is further complicated by the expectation by producers who say that the prices should have come down since the VAT waiver. Producers say that at the production level, VAT was waived but at the retail level it is still levied.
Nonetheless, consumers remain victims as they continue paying a nonexistent tax.
At the end of the time, scrapping of VAT is not helpful to lower consumers’ prices in the domestic markets if it does not impact the price of these essential items.
There are other factors which should be considered in ensuring the affordability of sanitary pads for girls and women especially those from poor families. Some of them are facilitating local producers to easily import raw materials and the government may give them subsidies to produce sanitary pads at a much lower cost.
The government may determine the cover price which traders can alter while there will be designated outlets such as pharmacies and supermarkets to trade pads to avoid manipulation of the price.
The Role of Water Aid in promoting MHM in Rwanda
WaterAid has been contributing to the promotion of Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM ) by building and equipping schools. MHM rooms have been constructed and equipped in Nyamagabe and Bugesera districts. Addition to that, WaterAid has been engaged in educating girls at school through hygiene clubs and beyond schools through students’ drama that are now aired on community radios.
During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, women and girls are facing challenges to get information about menstruation. Therefore, the Government and its partners should continue efforts to ensure access to menstrual hygiene products, safe water, soap and period-friendly sanitation facilities at home and across health care facilities.
And finally explore alternatives to interpersonal communication, such as online, radio, telephone and messaging services including menstrual health and hygiene in COVID-19 emergency response interventions and policies across sectors.