25 years after the dawn of a democratic South Africa, women still find themselves short-changed – despite the fact that the Constitution and successive court judgements are supposed to guarantee their equality in all aspects of their lives. In 2019, women’s decisions are not respected by, for example, officials of the Department of Home Affairs, despite indicating the wish to retain their surnames upon marriage. Women (often without the help of a partner) raise children for whom they cannot obtain birth certificates and enrol in schools. Women in South Africa live in perpetual fear for their lives following an astronomically high femicide rate – five times that of the global average. Until recently, women married in terms of theRecognition of Customary Marriages Actprior to the 1998 commencement date, had no rights to marital property. Young girls in the poorer areas of South Africa are forced to miss school often, due to the high cost of sanitary products. These anecdotes paint a clear, if not depressing, picture of the state of affairs for women in the country – one of inequality across the board.

Gender inequality is not a construct that is only perpetuated by flawed laws, prejudicial public officials and violent men. Every day, women are met with the punishment of being born female when they enter shops, in the form of what has come to be known as “Pink Tax”. This term refers to the retail phenomenon that charges women more than men for similar goods or services rendered. For example, women have been known to pay more for toiletries than men do, or be charged more for dry-cleaning, simply because they are women. A plethora of research has been done about Pink Tax and whilst, slowly but surely, we are moving towards equal pricing for similar items, it is common knowledge that products marketed to women are marked up – for no reason other than the fact that the target audience identifies as female.   

The pricing of goods labelled “for women” also targets a specific category of women – those who menstruate.  

The #FreeToBleed campaign, led by Pontsho Pilane, a student at the University of the Witwatersrand at the time, petitioned Parliament in November 2016 for free sanitary pads for all. The movement gained traction as the reality of the high cost of sanitary products swept across the world. Research conducted by the Stellenbosch University Law Clinic found that about 30% of girls in South Africa miss school when they are menstruating because they cannot afford sanitary products. This translates to about 90 days of schooling a year, skipped exams, and for some, the failure to complete high school altogether – a high price to pay for something that occurs naturally. The #FreeToBleed campaign saw part of its aim realised in October 2018. Finance Minister, Tito Mboweni, announced that from April 2019, South Africans would no longer be paying the value-added tax (VAT) of 15% on sanitary pads. The addition of sanitary pads to the zero-rated list was legislated early this year. For perspective, consumers were being taxed for sanitary pads as though they were non-essential or “luxury” items. 

The more important question to be asked is what this means for those learners from poorer provinces where the expense of sanitary pads really hits home. In a word, nothing. Removing VAT from sanitary towels changes nothing for those who cannot afford the goods either way. The miniscule difference can count as an acknowledgment of humanity and dignity, but it does not translate to access for the poorest in our society. Enter the government’s pledge, also announced by Mboweni in 2018, that there would be a roll-out of free sanitary pads to low fee schools in all provinces. The National Sanitary Dignity Programme, as it has been named, was launched in February 2019. It aims to reduce absenteeism due to menstruation and restore dignity whilst chasing gender equality in the education arena. 

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has estimated that roughly 1 in 10 girls in Africa miss school because of their periods each year. In scrapping the tampon tax, South Africa has commendably joined a number of its African counterparts in a global movement to restore and emphasise the right to human dignity. Kenya was the first country in the world to abolish tampon tax in 2004 and today, provides menstrual products to school-going girls. Tanzania, Nigeria, India and Canada have also scrapped tax on sanitary products.  The provision of free sanitary products to society’s most vulnerable is a welcome development, particularly when one considers the limited resources available. Perhaps in the future, we will see a South Africa where sanitary pads are free for all women and girls, the original call to action of the #FreeToBleed campaign. 

As we celebrate the giant leaps that women have taken in South Africa from that first march in 1956, it behoves us to remain mindful of the daily battles faced by those women and girls who do not have access to basic necessities, such as pads and tampons. Basic necessities without which, the entire trajectory of their lives changes. 

By Ms Rebecca Sibanda: Legal Officer, Centre for Constitutional Rights
8 August 2019

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