This quirky video by Elite Daily shows how (American) women have been dealing with their periods since 1900. Who knew that the idea for disposable pads came from nurses in World War I? They found that the cellucotton used on soldiers’ wounds worked just as well for absorbing menstrual blood. The first-ever Kotex product was inspired by their discovery.

The video shows the progression of sanitary solutions over the last 100 years. All we can say is thank heavens sanitary belts are no longer a thing.


Activists in America and globally have pointed out how unfair it is to tax sanitary products given that menstruation is not a choice but a healthy bodily function. The British campaign was victorious in March 2016 when David Cameron committed to scrapping tampon tax in the UK by 2018.

In South Africa, sanitary products are subject to 14% value added tax (VAT). On average, a South African woman can expect to spend R40 000 on sanitary products in her lifetime. It is especially problematic when considering women and girls who live below the poverty line and cannot afford this. They have to use alternatives such as towelling, newspaper, socks, or even grass and leaves to absorb the blood – all much worse than the old-school solutions seen in the Elite Daily video.

It has been shown that two of the top five reasons girls miss class are period pains and a lack of sanitary pads. Equal Education senior researcher Samuel Shapiro told IOL last year that one third of South African schoolgirls are estimated to miss school each month because of their periods. This is affecting their ability to learn and their right to education.

VAT and sanitary products: what is the solution for South Africa?

Some products and services are exempt from VAT through a zero rating charge or are listed as ‘exempt supplies’. These include public goods such as educational services, public transport and petrol. Others are exempt because they are necessities that should be affordable for everyone, such as basic foodstuffs (bread, milk and dried mielies).

When women don’t have access to sanitary products it infringes on their right to dignity and education, thus providing a strong argument for pads and tampons to be added to the ‘exempt supplies’ list. Tampon tax joined the #mustfall list in 2016 with NGOs, university organisations and commentators all pressuring government to drop the tax.

President Zuma committed to providing free (sanitary) supplies in 2011, but there has been little progress since then.

In late 2016, the Treasury argued that removing tax on such items wouldn’t necessarily make them more affordable for the poorest; instead, providing free sanitary products to this group of women would be a better solution. Health journalist Pontsho Pilane argues that both strategies are necessary: tax should be removed and free pads should be provided to the most vulnerable women and girls.

South Africa provides free condoms, so there is already a precedent for such a programme.

Samuel identifies the inconsistency of a society that provides condoms for free, but not sanitary products: ‘If we, as a society, can provide condoms for everyone, everywhere, then it is unconscionable not to do the same for pads and tampons,’ he said.

Pontsho concludes that although there is political will, a national policy and an integrated project between the departments of Health, Social Development and Basic Education is needed before the Treasury can allocate funds.

The Department of Women claimed 2017 would be the year for free sanitary products, but given that it’s now 2018 and the slow progress so far, we’re not celebrating just yet.