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Hands holding a tampon
Brazil has high rates of period povertyImage: Sebastian Kahnert/dpa/picture alliance

Bolsonaro free tampon veto sparks outrage

Astrid Prange
October 18, 2021

President Jair Bolsonaro's veto of a bill to distribute free sanitary pads and tampons to disadvantaged girls and women has caused heated debate. Many in the country suffer period poverty.

https://p.dw.com/p/41ols

Brazilian women are mobilizing against President Jair Bolsonaro. And this time, they could end up having their way on an issue that the president is anything but comfortable with — menstruation.

On October 6, Bolsonaro vetoed a bill to combat so-called period poverty, which occurs when people cannot afford or access necessary menstrual products. His move sparked an outcry in Brazil. Ever since, the country has seen furious debate over whether sanitary pads and tampons should be provided free of charge to girls in state-run schools.

But the veto could be overturned by Brazil's Congress in early November. The draft bill had been passed by the Brazilian Parliament in August and by a large majority in the Senate in September.

"It's not a matter of if, but of when Congress will overturn the veto," Brazilian federal deputy Tabata Amaral, one of the bill's co-authors, wrote on Twitter.

"We will not allow the inhumanity and machismo of Bolsonaro to determine the reality of 6 million Brazilian women who suffer from a lack of sanitary products and are humiliated because of it."

Menstruation remains taboo

In Brazil, menstruation is a taboo topic. According to a report by the UN children's aid agency, UNICEF, around 4 million girls in the country do not go to school when they get their period. A quarter of them have no money for tampons or pads.

Students at the Francisca Josue school in Ceara.
Many schoolgirls in Brazil stay away from school when they get their periodsImage: DW/N. Pontes

Period poverty affects not only schoolgirls but also women in prisons, homeless people and other families living in extreme poverty. According to the draft law, the cost of providing menstrual products for these groups would be around 83.3 million reais (€13 million/$15 million) a year.

Brazil's minister for women, family and human rights, Damares Alves, defended Bolsonaro's veto. She said in an interview with the Globo TV network that the government had to prioritize and had no funds to purchase menstrual products.

"We have to decide: vaccination or tampon. The problems of poor women have never interested any government in Brazil, and now Bolsonaro is being denounced as a monster just because he doesn't want to distribute hygiene products this year," Alves said.

Damares Alves
Damares Alves: 'Vaccination or tampon' — and not bothImage: SALVATORE DI NOLFI/KEYSTONE/picture alliance

Brazilian Congress will have final say

But the president of the Brazilian Senate, Rodrigo Pacheco, said he didn't accept the government's argument about a lack of resources.

"In Brazil, so much money is spent on countless things. It cannot be that young women from poor backgrounds with fundamental needs have to go empty-handed," read a statement on the conservative politician's website.

Pacheco could play a crucial role in the row with Bolsonaro. Under Brazil's constitution, he has the right to convene a joint session of the Senate and Parliament 30 days after the presidential veto. An absolute majority is required in both chambers of the Brazilian Congress to reject the veto.

"There is a good chance that Congress will overturn the veto," Pacheco's official statement said. "Of course, we cannot overlook the problems with funding, but we must find ways to provide menstrual products to young girls from poor backgrounds."

Sao Paulo leads the way

Many cities, municipalities and even states in Brazil have already found such ways. The draft law that is meant to ensure menstrual products are provided on a national level has, in fact, taken its cue from these local and regional initiatives.

In July this year, a law on free period products was passed in the city parliament of the megacity of Sao Paulo. In Rio de Janeiro, too, city officials have decided to provide menstrual products in state-run schools. And similar projects to provide free sanitary napkins and tampons are underway in several states in South America's largest country.

Worldwide, the number of countries guaranteeing a reliable supply of menstrual products for schoolgirls or in other social areas is still small (see graphic). But the number of initiatives is growing.

World map showing where menstruation products are provided free

Scrapping taxes on menstrual products

Many countries are also trying to make menstrual products cheaper by reducing or eliminating taxes.

In Germany, for example, the value-added tax on sanitary pads and tampons has been reduced from 19% to 7% since 2020.

France, Poland and the United Kingdom have reduced VAT to 5%. And some countries, including Ireland, India, Malaysia and Nigeria have even scrapped the tax altogether, according to Statista, a German company specializing in market and consumer data.

Celebrity throws weight behind bill

For now, the debate over menstruation in Brazil is set to continue, at least until the showdown in Brazil's Congress in early November.

Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has to contend with the many fans of a prominent proponent of the bill. Juliette, a singer who has 3.9 million followers on Twitter, is pushing for the bill.

"If women don't have access to menstrual items during their periods, they don't have access to health care and education, either" she wrote on her Twitter account. "The presidential veto must be overturned. Menstrual poverty has to be taken seriously in Brazil."

This article has been translated from German

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