It's rare if not unprecedented for tampons and sanitary pads to become a topic widely discussed by men -- let alone men in power.
For that we can thank Puea Chat spokeswoman Ketpreeya Kaewsanmuang, who used social media to question the high price of sanitary protection. The woman MP blamed this on taxation, claiming that such products were classified as luxury goods and therefore subject to 40% excise tax.
The ensuing "tampon-tax" debate drew a swift response from the government, which triumphantly debunked it as "fake news".
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was joined by Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta, in his capacity as director of the anti-fake news centre, in threatening legal action against the MP and others who spread such disinformation. Their response followed a statement by Excise Department deputy chief Wiwat Khaosakul who insisted there was no excise tax levied on the product.
The irony is the interest of these powerful men was limited to "fake" or "real" news, while ignoring the heart of the issue: how the price of tampons affects women's everyday lives -- especially underprivileged women. Unfortunately, their concerns were focused on how the issue affects them, their status and power. The PM and Mr Buddhipongse just want to penalise those who disseminated "fake news", while the excise chief focused on "fact". Period (end of debate).
Or is it?
I can't tell whether Ms Ketpreeya raised the issue as clickbait to gain attention for herself, as her high-powered critics claim. But I couldn't agree more with her argument on the price issue. The fact is, this hygiene necessity is simply unaffordable for a huge number of women, especially low-income earners. Yes, women like me can ignore the price issue, but what about those who cannot?
A brief walk down the personal healthcare aisle will tell you that the cheapest sanitary pad costs at least 5 baht. In case you don't know, women are advised to change their pads every four hours; simple arithmetic tells you how much six pads a day costs. Imagine the monthly fixed cost for a single mother with a teenage daughter. And imagine what worry that causes if she is paid only the daily minimum wage.
In fact, "period poverty" isn't merely a third-world problem.
In the UK, 17-year-old Amika George launched a campaign in 2017 to convince the government to provide free sanitary products to schoolkids. Her voice went unheard at first. But earlier this year the British government decided to fund free sanitary products for school and college students across England following public complaints that students were skipping class during their period.
According to research on period poverty and stigma conducted by Plan International UK in 2017, 10% of girls in the UK were unable to afford sanitary wear, while 15% struggled to afford it. The research polled 1,000 girls and young women aged 14-21 and was carried out online in Aug 2017. The same research also found 14% had to ask to borrow sanitary products and 12% had to improvise protection, both due to affordability issues. Meanwhile, 19% had changed to a cheaper, less suitable product due to cost levels.
Elsewhere, the state government of Victoria in Australia pledged a four-year programme of free sanitary pads for schoolgirls, beginning last July. The programme is part of a AUS$20-million push to break down barriers preventing girls and young women from educational advancement.
In Africa, the Kenyan government began providing free sanitary pads to 4.2 million girls in public schools in April last year, to discourage them from skipping class.
In Thailand, there has been no serious research on how menstruation affects our girls. And since the topic has never been widely discussed, I'm not sure if any of my childhood classmates had to skip class for their periods or how many schoolgirls still do so. Although menstruation is no longer such a taboo topic, with people less awkward when talking about it, it's still not perceived as a health issue by many.
The way the PM and his men handled the tampon issue reminds me of how the male-dominated government often discusses women's issues without really seeing us.
In 2017, the Ministry of Public Health tried to encouraged women aged 20 and 34 to have children, to boost the country's birth rate. The ministry was kind enough to provide rewards, but it stopped short of looking more deeply into the issue of why so many women, especially working women, simply cannot afford to be mothers.
The same applies to the tampon debate. The PM and his men should look beyond their narrow political interests and address the facts behind this important issue.