Image courtesy of Archivo Semana

Last November, Colombia eliminated the tax on products for menstrual hygiene management. The Constitutional Court decided that taxing pads and tampons constituted a form of indirect discrimination against women and was therefore unconstitutional. This decision put an end to a long-lasting discussion between the government and civil society. In 2016, the government passed a tax reform that reduced taxation on such products from 16% to 5%, but civil society kept pushing for its outright elimination. The debate continued for a couple of years, and this showed in the briefs submitted to the Constitutional Court—for example, the brief by the Office of the Inspector General defended the constitutionality of the tax on products for menstrual hygiene management, and the brief by the Office of the Ombudsman stood for the unconstitutionality of such tax on the grounds of discrimination. The Court, however, was unanimous in its ruling in favor of tax-free pads and tampons.

In light of this decision, Colombia is one step closer to realizing its commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, especially goal no. 3, ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages; goal no. 4, ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all; and goal no. 5, achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. The lack of access to pads and tampons is a key issue in terms of development. Concerns over menstrual hygiene management may keep girls away from school or compromise their learning experience, and there is no doubt that barriers to education deeply affect people’s lives—especially women’s—on many fronts, ranging from economic empowerment to violence exposure, to decision-making power, to political representation. Menstrual hygiene management is also a human rights issue, as it impacts the right to health, education, and non-discrimination, among others.

hand carrying a grocery basket in a supermarket aisle

The issue of tax-free pads and tampons demonstrates the intersection between development and human rights. Most importantly, it demonstrates how a given tax regime can impact these spheres, either negatively oy positively. Last November, Colombia also debated instituting (or in some cases raising) taxation on products of the canasta familiar, a group of basic-needs products such as milk, bread, eggs, and meat. The proposal was heavily criticized and did not go through. Seeking an alternative to generate revenue, the government rekindled an older debate on raising taxes on sugary drinks. The past government had tried to include this measure in a tax reform a couple of years ago, framing it as part of the fight against obesity. The underlying concern was to protect public health, by exploring the fact that raising taxes on sugary drinks should lead to a drop in consumption.

It is curious that all these discussions—about taxing pads and tampons, the canasta familiar, and sugary drinks—were happening in Colombia last November, as 2018 came to a close. In different ways, they all have to do with key issues in development and human rights. Ultimately, it is not about taxes in an abstract sense, but about gender equality, education, nutrition, and health, to name a few. Taxes can be a powerful tool to boost development and promote human rights, but in order to fulfill these purposes it is important to be mindful, always, of who is benefiting and who is being left behind.