About 30% of female learners in South African schools do not attend school when they menstruate because they cannot afford sanitary hygiene products. This means that a girl could effectively lose about 90 days of schooling a year as a direct result of issues relating to menstruation. Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agencay (ANA) Archives
In a week when the Billabong Junior Pro surfing championship was blasted for sexism, the gender pay gap and “pink tax” - or the cost of being a female consumer - have been thrown into stark relief.

Pictured side by side, the two proud young champions held their giant cheques aloft for the world to see, captioned by the organisers as: “Meet your 2018 Billabong Junior Series Ballito Pro Junior winners, Rio Waida (Indonesia) and Zoe Steyn (East London, South Africa) who claimed their victory today in medium-sized onshore conditions at Willard Beach, Ballito.”

“Same waves, half the prize money - why this photo is a disgrace," Clementine Ford, a leading feminist wrote in the Australian newspaper, Sydney Morning Herald: “When organisers from the Ballito Pro announced the individual winners of the 2018 Billabong Junior Series this week, it was with the gob-smacking ignorance of people who have clearly avoided any recent discussions on gender inequality in sport.”

Stillstoked.com - a website aimed at inspiring adventurous women through stories, musings, sport and travel, noted: “Blatant sexism: Billabong Pro tells girls the world values them less than boys.”

Other observers panned Billabong’s absurd justification for the different pay scales because there were twice as many male entrants as female, with one stating: “Weird that Billabong women’s clothing isn’t half the price of men’s clothing”, while others asked whether the women’s waves were half as high.

Same, same

Our Labour Relations and Employment Equity acts state equal pay for work of equal value, yet in 2018, women are still suffering for our sex. We pay more for “pink” products, from “cradle to grave”. Our work isn’t as valued as that of men’s and many sporting codes - which should be at the forefront of empowerment - view women’s sport as less attractive.

That needs to change, starting by making feminine hygiene products available to the poor and making them tax-exempt.

It’s an issue researchers at Stellenbosch University’s law clinic feel strongly about. Last week, they revealed that they had asked the Treasury to drop “tampon tax” by including feminine hygiene products on the list of zero-rated VAT items.

In May, a month after the VAT increase became effective, the Treasury announced it would review the list of VAT-free items and called for public submissions on the list of 19 items, to reach its expert panel by May 24.

Monja Posthumus-Meyjes, an attorney at the university’s Law Clinic, two candidate attorneys, Danielle Louw and Erika Wright, and two SU law faculty academics, Dr Lize Mills and Silke de Lange, conducted research on VAT charged on feminine hygiene products and the impact high prices have on women who can’t afford it.

“The research indicates that the lack of access to feminine hygiene products, primarily as a result of the high prices of these products, is an enormous problem that confronts poor, vulnerable and marginalised women and girls in South Africa. Because they can’t afford this, they are forced to turn to alternative options that are mostly unhygienic and pose serious health risks,” the researchers noted in a statement.

Alleviating suffering

The multi-party women’s caucus in Parliament has also called for a VAT exemption on these products - or that they should be made widely available, especially to the poor, because they’re a basic need, not a want. The researchers note that Kenya became the first country in the world to abolish tampon tax in 2004.

“We looked into tampon tax from the beginning of the year and at comparative studies internationally. We spoke to people at the law faculty who are experts in tax and women’s matters. We work in impact litigation - looking at it in terms of impact to approach the court to change legislation or alleviate suffering.”

Posthumus-Meyjes said the idea is not new but the issue needs to be brought forward. The Department of Women previously released a white paper that’s “going nowhere”.

Posthumus-Meyjes said: “The fact that many girls and women cannot afford proper sanitary hygiene products has serious consequences in other aspects of their lives. About 30% of female learners in South African schools do not attend school when they menstruate because they cannot afford sanitary hygiene products. This means that a girl could effectively lose about 90 days of schooling a year as a direct result of issues relating to menstruation. This places her at a huge disadvantage because she’s effectively losing out on 30% of her education, every year.”

The researchers believe it’s a constitutional issue because human rights to education, freedom, security and human dignity are being infringed upon.

Discrimination

“It’s a form of gender discrimination,” she said.

The Treasury has defended its position on feminine hygiene products before, but former president Jacob Zuma raised the issue back in 2011 in Parliament, saying there was a need for free sanitary products, but nothing came of it.

Posthumus-Meyjes said they hadn’t received a response from the Treasury and would wait for the independent panel to deliver its recommendations on July 31.

“Those girls will never be on the same educational footing as boys. The cycle of poverty is being enforced. KwaZulu-Natal gives free sanitary products to girls. Why can’t all the provinces do it?”

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth

The Star