Sentenced to death by inadequate of representation


The story of Bomet, a 14-year-old Kenyan girl who killed herself after she was shamed in school

for staining her uniform with her menstrual blood shocked the globe. Bomet’s story reminded me

of a story about a 16-year-old girl I met on an outreach program organized by the Girls Excellence Movement.

She admits to having sex with a 54-year-old man in exchange for four months’ supply of sanitary pad. This needless hardship exists in most African countries because menstrual hygiene products are classified as luxury products and heavily taxed.

I argue little Bomet who killed herself and girls like her are sentenced to pointless hardship and eventual death by inadequate female representation rather than poverty. For example, Ghana’s Revenue System classifies sanitary pads as a luxury import and levy a 20 percent tax making the commodity expensive and inaccessible for women and girls in deprived communities for years regardless of opposition to the tax.

Interestingly, Ghana imposed a 9 percent Luxury Vehicle tax to control the importation of vehicles with high capacity engines, but that tax was eliminated when a few people, mostly men, spoke against it. Isn’t it a wonder that a huge tax on a monthly necessity is firmly in place while a comparably minimal tax on an irregular status choice was scrapped within a year in favor of mostly men, who are usually the average and high-income earners? Would menstrual hygiene products be taxed if men were the users? Of course not, as Zoe Salzman, an attorney for the in New York City pink tax advocates said “There is no way these products would be taxed if men had to use them” And I dare say, with the same logic, that the luxury tax on menstrual hygiene products in Ghana would have been repelled by now if there were more women in government with decision making powers.

Women form about 51% of the population but have only 13% representation in parliament. Again, women and girls between the average ages of 12-40, forming about 30% of Ghana’s Population who are mostly minimum wage (10.6 cedis daily, equivalent to 1.94usd) earners are taxed for performing nature’s duty, being taxed for bleeding monthly, is like being taxed for breathing or urinating, while products like viagra and condoms are exempted for use by men? As unemployment and the gender pay gap increases among women, especially in this COVID-19 era, the adverse effect is glare. A study by AC Nielson titled “Sanitary Protection: Every Woman’s Health Right” found “the biggest barrier to using a sanitary napkin is affordability. Around 70% of women in India say their family can’t afford to buy them” and same can be said of Ghana as the taxation of menstrual products has intensified menstruation stigma and has been especially “punishing to girls from low-income homes who have been reported to miss school during their period because they cannot afford menstrual products,” reported African Exponent

The menstrual products tax makes the commodity exclusive to an extent. It is estimated that more than 2 million girls in Ghana need support in order to get menstrual hygiene products. This lack of access created by this tax leads to an increase in infections and sexual reproductive issues; an increase in sexually transmitted diseases; an increase in rape and domestic violence incidents; and ultimately, an increase in deaths due to the shame associated with menstruation since the mortifying effect of staining one’s dress in school coupled with the cultural implications of menstruation hurts the overall mental health of girls. In Kenya, a report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) found that “schoolgirls engage in transactional sex to pay for menstrual products, particularly for the younger, uneducated, economically-dependent girls.” A field report by GEM in 2018 revealed a similar trend in some schools visited within the Volta, Greater Accra and Eastern Regions of Ghana, where a significant percentage of the girls opened up to the Mentors, about exchanging sex for as low as 20 Ghana Cedis, (equivalent to less than 4 dollars) to buy a sanitary pad, and soap to wash their underwear during menses.

Despite the glaring effects, Governments over the years turned a blind eye, disregarding calls from civil society to repeal the policy. Even when South Africa and Zambia have reviewed similar taxes and scholars including Christopher Cotropia, and Kyle Rozema have maintained in their studies “repealing menstrual product taxes removes an unequal tax burden and made menstrual hygiene products more accessible for low-income consumers” and outlined the impact on increased enrollment in school and an upturn in the academic performance of girls, Ghana’s pad tax is firmly in place, the many peripheral voices have not been heard nor headed to for years, probably because not enough women have voting rights or final decision-making clout in Cabinet, Parliament, as Ministers, on Boards, Councils, etc. This is one reason every appointment of a woman to any position of leadership in governance is worth applauding and celebrating.

Sadly, some argue the menstrual products tax was imposed to control the influx of foreign products which might cripple the local industry, the same reason given for the Luxury Vehicle tax, the irony is, Ghana has no local pad manufacturing industry just as we have no vehicle manufacturing industry. Others also argue Ghana needs the revenue from the taxes for development projects, if this is the case, then the Luxury Vehicle Tax is also needed for development, but of course the latter part of the argument is obviously not getting into Cabinet to influence policy. Where are the Women, to make a convincingly irrefutable case, like their male counterparts do in their numbers, to influence policy on issues that affects men directly? According to a study by the Aya Institute in 2018, women in Ghana hold 10% seat in Council of state, 21% in Cabinet, 13% in Parliament, while countries like Rwanda, Bolivia, Cuba have exceeded global female representation targets, Ghana still stands at a glum 13%  far below the current world average of 23% and the African average of 24%.

From the discussion so far, would you agree there is a serious need to give women opportunities in leadership and even the tokens deserve a count? Would you agree society in its entirety stands to benefit more in all aspects if more woman voices are represented in Cabinet, Parliament and the Boardrooms? Would you also agree, such a move wouldn’t deprive men of anything? I have always held that, in giving women significantly representative number of seats at the table, Ghana would not only be achieving some of the targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 5, but such will be a strategic move towards a wide-ranging national development where everyone wins. All political parties are therefore encouraged to empower the women within their fold by appointing them to significant roles rather than the usual women organizer and related roles. Women can be full-blown party Flagbearers, Organizers, Secretaries and Chairpersons too. A resounding congratulations to Prof Naana Jane Opoku-Agyeman of Ghana and Ms. Kamala Harris of the United States for their appointment as flagbearers of two major parties in their respective countries, good luck at the polls in November and December respectively.

The question that still stands out is, if the government can be responsive to the voices of a few people and remove the luxury vehicle tax without hurting the economy, why has it proven so difficult for governments to remove the pad tax that is hurting a large percentage of its population? Would it be wrong to think the government was responsive because of the presence of more men at the table to make their case? Is the government still silent about pad tax because the voices of the 25% of women are constantly drowned by the jabs from the 75% dominant male voices? Would things be any different if women formed 50% of the voices in cabinet? With these obviously unanswered questions, I would not be exaggerating to conclude that little Bomet whose life was cut short and the many girls before her whose death are avoidable have been sentenced to death by inadequate representation rather than poverty.

Written by: Juliana Ama Kplorfia

Joint EMPA Student at NYU and UCL

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