Opinion: The tampon tax is why we need more women representation in parliament

Since last week, Thai twitter has been abuzz with the hashtag  #ผ้าอนามัยปลอดภาษี (#taxfreepads) over an announcement in the Royal Gazette that tampons are classified as cosmetics, therefore potentially subjecting it to the luxury tax of up to 40 percent. 

The government’s announcement comes at a particularly bad time, with a rising death toll due to the covid-19 pandemic and multiple (mis)management fiascos.

While the government did quickly clarify that 40 percent tax on luxury goods will not be levied – the reclassification was done for only health and safety concerns – sanitary products are still subject to 7% sales tax and VAT as it has always been. 

This is still a toll for menustrators – most of whom identify as women – who are increasingly burdened with the pink tax. 

What is the pink tax?

Pink tax refers to the pricing of products discriminately based on gender. In other words, women pay more for everyday products marketed for them when compared to men. A classic example is the razor – one in pink and marketed towards women is more expensive than an identical one for men.

This worldwide phenomenon exists against a background of an already-existing gender pay gap. On a larger scale, this means that women have much less purchasing power; having to pay more for everyday products (including sanitary products) exacerbates economic inequality between genders even further. 

In Thailand, the issue of tax on sanitary products was already bought up once in 2019 by Spokeswoman Ketpreeya Kaewsanmuang of the Puea Chat Party (พรรคเพื่อชาติ). She received scathing backlash from men in Parliament, who threatened to bring legal action against her spreading “fake news.”

Now that it is being brought up again, this is the perfect opportunity to discuss the pink tax, specifically the pricing on sanitary products, and its broader implications on our society. 

Sanitary Products: a necessity

In their clarification statement, Thai Food and Drug Administration did acknowledge following last week’s controversy that sanitary products are not a luxury, but rather a “necessary everyday product.”

That begs the question, why is it still subject to the 7 percent tax?

While everyday products are subject to sales tax and VAT, a strong case should be made for sanitary products to be exempt. The government has legislated for products and services to be tax-exempt before, such as on the sale of animals and fertilizers, or for artistic, cultural, educational and healthcare services.

While those products and services are important, I would argue that tampons are even more so. Considering how expensive period products are, a tax exemption can greatly contribute to providing women in low incomes with greater access to period products, and thus preventing period poverty. Furthermore, by acknowledging the necessity of period products, which more than half the population needs once a month, the stigma around periods can be alleviated. 

This conversation is especially important given the current climate. Women and girls – many of whom have already been disproportionately affected by the socioeconomic impact of Covid-19 – have to spend a high amount on products that are a necessity to them. It is especially damaging for women with lower incomes and their girls, some of whom will skip school during their periods for lack of sanitary pads. 

Furthermore, gender-specific needs, including sanitary products, must not be forgotten for women in prisons at this time. This is especially current given that prisons are notorious super spreader hotspots during the pandemic. It must also be noted that the aptly-named United Nations Bangkok Rules – ardently promoted by the government – state in rule 5 that “The accommodation of women prisoners shall have facilities and materials required to meet women’s specific hygiene needs, including sanitary towels provided free of charge…”

Look to Scotland for example, the first country in the world to make period products free in 2020 – in fact, it places a legal obligation on authorities to ensure that menustrators can freely obtain period products. While entirely free menstrual products may still be too radical for Thailand in many people’s eyes, we need not immediately follow that example. Look to Kenya, the first country to abolish sales tax for period products in 2004. Or Canada, which removed its tax in 2015; Mauritius, which scrapped it in 2017; India, which eliminated the 12 percent tax in 2018; Rwanda, which removed its tax in 2019; Britain, which abolished it earlier this year in January 2021. With foreing precedents aplenty, Thailand should take note. 

Female Representation: why it matters

This current topic is a case in point for why female representation in politics is crucial, and how it can affect our daily lives. For wealthy members of a male-dominated government, menstrual product prices may not be seen as an issue. We need to make it one. 

While Thailand has made significant strides in women empowerment through the 2015 Gender Equality Act, and admittedly the number of female MPs have increased over the past decade (especially during Yingluck Shinawtra’s administration), Thai politics remain male-dominated. In Thailand, the 77 women hold seats in Parliament, putting the percentage at a mere 15.75 percent. This is despite article 90 of the 2017 Constitution stipulating that gender balance must be considered in preparing party lists; clearly, this consideration is not always applied in practice.

When men are at the table discussing the way our country is run while women are having trouble just getting in the door, what results is legislation that does not adequately represent the needs of more than half the country’s population. This goes to show why it is so important to support the young women leading protests on our streets for gender equality, including the right of safe access to menstrual hygiene. It shows why it was so important for Thai citizens to voice their concerns on social media – because it can affect real change in the government that exists to serve us. 

Tax on a product for a female biological function is symptomatic of a deeper social problem. It is not just that the pink tax manifests a structural gender barrier; it is also that the lived and shared experiences of menustrators and women in this country are not being appropriately considered in policy and legislation. And it won’t be until more than half of the population is better represented in the government that makes them. 


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