Behind the pro-democracy protests in Thailand: The Tampon Tax

Lucia Pastrana is a second year International Relations student. She is passionate about social justice and feminist economics. She serves as Global Politics & Women’s Security Current Events Reporter for the Clandestine.

[Featured Image: An illustration of the alternative products women use to feminine hygiene products. Source.]

“Everyone says that we have to create justice, women and men have equal rights, and can do the same good and bad things. Thai society will deteriorate if you think this way”.[1] Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-Cha continued: “Since I got married, I never have to do anything. She does it all herself. That’s why I have this brain to think aimlessly,”.[2] In 2016 the PM articulated these words during a speech addressed to young people in Bangkok.[3] Although this statement was emitted four years ago, it is possible to see in practice Thailand’s male supremacy and trace the source of the student-led protests occurring since July. 

Underlying gendered claims behind pro-democracy protests

Last 18th of November 10,000 pro-democracy protesters gathered around police HQ condemning the monarchy and military government by screaming ‘slaves of tyranny’ and ‘our taxes’.[4] For months these pro-democracy protests have been calling for political reform, challenging the monarchy, and the Prayuth Chan-o-Cha  who seized power in 2014 through a military coup.[5] Amongst the protesters, the majority are students who want a fair government and question the legitimacy of the monarchy.[6] Unlike older generations, Thai youth has been exposed to social media, globalisation and more progressive ideas which have inspired them to challenge traditional authority by demanding transparency and accountability. However, it is imperative to highlight that young female leadership has come to dominate the movement and use it as a platform to raise gendered issues. For example, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a young female student has manifested in public gatherings her anti-royalist sentiment and the deep-rooted male supremacy in Thai’s society. She stated in September: “The monarchy and the military have all the power in Thailand,” adding “I shouldn’t be afraid to say that men have almost all the power in Thailand”.[7] Before, in August she publicly questioned the monarchy in a student gathering: “All humans have red blood. We are no different…No-one in this world is born with blue blood. Some people may be born more fortunate than others, but no one is born more noble than anyone else.”[8]

As mentioned, the pro-democracy protests have served as a platform to raise gendered issues that would not typically be discussed as part of the political agenda. Feminist protesters are questioning anti-abortion laws, criminalisation of prostitution, growing male supremacy since 2014, low female representation in the government and taxes on menstrual products.[9]  Notably, the latter touches upon a broader global issue which is ‘period poverty’. It is defined as the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, handwashing  facilities, and, or, waste management due to financial constraints.[10] In many countries, period poverty is a consequence of the high Value Added Tax (V.A.T) or ‘tampon tax’ widely imposed on menstruation products, on the basis that they are considered ‘luxury items’.[11]

The political economy of menstruation in Thailand: The tampon tax and power framing

In the case of Thailand, menstruation products are significantly costly and inaccessible. Last year, the representative of Puea Chat political party, Ketpreeya Kaewsanmuang, pointed out how menstruation products are subject to 40% of VAT and the implications this pressing reality has on unprivileged women and non-binary people’s lives. The National Excise Department rapidly lashed backed by claiming those were ‘fake news’. Considering Thailand’s government fails to provide gendered data, the nature of Kaewsanmuang’s remains uncertain. Nevertheless, debating back and forth whether these are false claims or not, just diverts the conversation from its central point, which is the inaccessible prices of menstrual products and the period poverty these are causing. The cheapest pads cost 5 Baht each, and approximately five are used daily, that would equal 25 Baht.  Since the minimum wage in 2019 was 313 Baht, menstrual products could consume up to 12% of the daily income every month for four to five days. On these terms, it is not affordable for low-income women as well as unprivileged non-binary and transgender people to take care of their periods.

The Excise Department’s response, as a government agency, denied the allegations and stated after the controversy raised last year that the ‘tampon tax’ imposed on menstruation products was subject to a 7% VAT.[12]   Menstruation products are indeed classified as luxury items and are part of a list of 46 products subject to price control by the Ministry of Commerce.[13] Analysing closely power wielders in the Ministry of Commerce, it is possible to see that the Minister is a man, the Deputy Minister is a man, the Vice-Minister is a man, both Secretaries to the Minister of Commerce are men. Lastly, only one of the two Advisors to the Minister of Commerce is a woman, Mrs Malika Boonmeetrakool Mahasook, while the other is a man.[14] The Ministry of Commerce is an illustrative example of how power and justice are framed in Thailand. This framing leaves women at the margins of decision-making spheres. As activist Kornkanok Kamta argued: “We cannot claim to be a true democracy when decisions about our bodies and reproductive health are still controlled by the government”[15]. On this context, the Ministry of Commerce which is male dominated has the power to make decisions that directly impact women, transgender and non-binary groups that are being deliberately excluded from the conversation. 

These relations of power and the representation mis-framing taking place in Thailand’s socio-political sphere raises the question: What if the man with positions of power in the Ministry of Commerce menstruated every month? Gloria Steinem raised this question in 1978 on her book “If Men could Menstruate” and argued that in a hypothetical scenario where men menstruated and male privilege applied to the process as an empowering experience under the hierarchies of masculinity, sanitary products would be funded by the government and free.[16] Although Steinem’s argument provides an insightful analysis, the reality is different, and rather than engaging in the debate on who is to blame, it is more useful to understand how the networks of power are interacting in action. Mainly because when we trace the systems of power that are hindering reforms in menstruation products prices, it is possible to point out a critical factor that perpetuates the ‘tampon tax’: stigmatisation.

Cultural stigma hindering reform

To an extent, stigma over menstruation in Thai’s society, families, schools, and government are limiting the opportunity to open the conversation. Evidence of how stigma is highly present are the protests, where activist Supeecha Baotip declared: “There are a lot of people who have a bias against menstruation. People like to think that a period makes you irritable, therefore women are irritable, because when she gets to that time of the month, she becomes irrational, which makes women look irrational. This is about our bodies. Democracy is about politics on a wider scale, but the rights of one person together, the rights that were given have to be accountable”.[17] Feminist protesters are speaking out against the injustices of period poverty as well as outdated school norms that force girls to follow a traditional version of femininity.[18] Amongst these explicit and implicit norms in Thai’s schools, stigma towards menstruations is the elephant in the room. Teachers tend to feel uncomfortable while discussing it because they are concerned about the parent’s and community’s sensitive nature towards sexual education. They can also feel embarrassed and be poorly prepared when answering questions, or they might prioritise other subjects over teaching sexual education.[19] What happens in Thai schools is a direct product of the patriarchal structures that manifest in the political economy as well as the daily informal social interactions that perpetuate them. In the social sphere, cultural stigma is making it difficult for girls to experience menstruation without sexual education and support. In the political sphere, if stigma is perpetuated, change and reforms in the political economy of menstruation are unlikely to happen.

Nevertheless, the fact that Thai women are leading the pro-democracy protests and challenging sexism provides hope for future generations. Every generation brings something new to the conversation, and that is the value of progress. The current generation of Thai women is highly educated and civically engaged. In addition to their leadership role in the protest, women in Thailand dominate areas of education like services, since, health and welfare, social sciences, humanities, business, law and education.[20] Indeed, these generations of young Thai women have the tools to demand and implement change in society. It will be hard for Thailand’s patriarchal institutions to continue neglecting feminist and pro/democracy claims when there is a large group of women that are mobilising ready to demand their rights.

[1] Ekachai, Sanitsuda. “Thai Prime Minister’s Vision of Gender Equality Stuck in the Past.” The Myanmar Times, February 5, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Misogynist Military Boss: Prayuth Says Gender Equality ‘Will Make Thai Society Deteriorate’: Coconuts Bangkok.” Coconuts, February 8, 2017.

[4] Ratcliffe, Rebecca. “10,000 Pro-Democracy Protesters March on Thai Police HQ.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, November 18, 2020.

[5] Fisher, Jonah. “Thailand Military Seizes Power in Coup.” BBC News. BBC, May 22, 2014.

[6] Tan, Yvette. “Why a New Generation of Thais Are Protesting against the Government.” BBC News. BBC, August 1, 2020.

[7] Beech, Hannah, and Muktita Suhartono. “Young Women Take a Frontline Role in Thailand’s Protests.” The New York Times. The New York Times, September 24, 2020.

[8] “The Student Daring to Challenge Thailand’s Monarchy.” BBC News. BBC, September 16, 2020.

[9] Beech, Hannah, and Muktita Suhartono. “Young Women Take a Frontline Role in Thailand’s Protests.” The New York Times. The New York Times, September 24, 2020.

[10] “Period Poverty: Womens Health: Royal College of Nursing.” The Royal College of Nursing. Accessed November 19, 2020.

[11] Buchholz, Katharina, and Felix Richter. “Infographic: Where the ‘Tampon Tax’ Is Highest and Lowest in Europe.” Statista Infographics, May 28, 2020.

[12] Rodriguez, Leah. “How Young Women Are Leading Thailand’s Protests Against the Patriarchy.” Global Citizen. Global Citizen, September 25, 2020.

[13] “Tampons and Sanitary Pads Not Classified as ‘Luxury Products’: Excise Department.” The Nation Thailand, December 17, 2019.

[14] “About MOC.” Ministry of Commerce, n.d.

[15] Rodriguez, Leah. “How Young Women Are Leading Thailand’s Protests Against the Patriarchy.” Global Citizen. Global Citizen, September 25, 2020.

[16] Hunter, Lea. Hinckley Journal of Politics 17 (2016): 11–20.

[17] Prachatai. “Women’s Rights Group Campaigns for Abortion Rights at Democracy Monument Protest.” Prachatai English, August 16, 2020.

[18] Beech, Hannah, and Muktita Suhartono. “Young Women Take a Frontline Role in Thailand’s Protests.” The New York Times. The New York Times, September 24, 2020.

[19] Richards, Raw. “Bigger Than Boxes: Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) in Thai Schools.” Peace Corps Thailand Magazine, May 22, 2018.

[20] Kotikula, Andy, and Alicia Hamamond. “3 Charts about Gender Equality Every College Student (and Professor) Should Know.” World Bank Blogs, August 12, 2020.

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