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Women MPs slam Treasury for shoddy sanitary towels VAT exemption plans

In Parliament, women across the political spectrum have issued a stern warning to National Treasury: take the request for sanitary pads to be value added tax (VAT) exempt seriously.

On Thursday, Yanga Mputa — treasury’s chief director of tax policy — made a presentation to the multi-party women’s caucus in Parliament to outline the progress treasury has made on the caucus’s request that sanitary towels not be taxed.

Inside the meeting, MPs called for a “gender sensitive budget”.

The acting chairperson of the caucus  Nthabiseng Khunou told treasury: “VAT must be removed on sanitary towels, because it’s not our fault that we menstruate”.

The women’s caucus first made the request to treasury in September 2017. In November, treasury turned down their request, but after government adopted a policy to increase VAT by 1% in February, treasury said that it would consider expanding its list of zero rated VAT items.

The VAT exemption would apply to poor learners who are enrolled in quintile one, two and three schools — many of whom are based in rural areas.

So far, however, no company has been contracted to produce the sanitary towels, and treasury has set a deadline for submissions on if sanitary towels should be tax exempt without the knowledge of even the caucus, let alone the general public.

On Thursday, the caucus heard for the first time that treasury had opened a submissions process for the public to submit input on the possible addition of sanitary towels to the zero rated list.

The closing date for public submissions, MPs heard, is May 24.

The submissions can be sent via treasury’s website but these would be viewed by an independent panel appointed to study the process because of treasury’s involvement in implementing the 1% increase on VAT.

MPs grilled Mputa about where treasury had advertised the call for public submissions. Mputa responded that the information had been made available on Treasury’s website and in an interview with PowerFM.

Small Business Minister Lindiwe Zulu, along with other MPs, questioned why treasury had not gone to community radio stations, which use different languages or television stations.

“You can’t tell us on your website only or PowerFM only. This is an issue which should have been on TV, and I know it’s very expensive to advertise, but we must demand that it must be on the popular radio stations which are listened to by the majority of our people. It must be on community radio,” Zulu said.

The business of pads — for women only

Zulu admitted to the caucus that there were small business enterprises who had attempted to profit from the need for affordable sanitary towels. Zulu’s department is responsible for finding a small business enterprise that could produce the pads.

“The issue of production of sanitary pads has become a contested money-making scheme. That’s just the bottom line, because there’s many SMMEs [small, medium and micro-sized enterprises] and co-operatives and people who are asking our department to fund them for having the machine that makes the sanitary pads,” Zulu said.

“We must just wake up that reality that everything that comes, people will just be looking to make money out of it. That’s the reality of where we are,” Zulu said.

MPs demanded that because women are in the business of wearing pads, they should be the ones who benefit financially from the business. Zulu responded, saying that the department could announce that only women-led businesses can apply to partner with government on the issue.

“We can say as a department, anyone who is coming, looking for funding for their machine that makes sanitary pads, we will only give it to women. It’s how we do it will that will help us to get it done,” Zulu said.

There were also concerns raised about the quality of the pads, and that learners should not be left itchy or irritated because the sanitary towels were made from the wrong materials. It will be up to the South African Bureau of Standards ensure that the quality of the pads is healthy.

The caucus was clearly dissatisfied with treasury’s presentation, and the lack of progress that had been made to help young girls who need these products. But Zulu urged MPs to act on their word.

“If we look at what we used to do pre-1994 and 1994, if we look at what we did as women, this multi party caucus used to be so vibrant. It used to be out on the street. It used to be mobilising people out there. We need less of the talking and more of the going out,” she said.

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Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

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