Imposing tax on diapers reinforces structural violence against women

MPs during plenary recently  

What you need to know:

  • My interest was drawn to the VAT Amendment Bill 2023 where the government decided to lift the 18 percent VAT exemption on baby diapers but reinstate the tax exemption on adult diapers

With the government’s taxman only able to fund 57% of next fiscal year’s 52 trillion budget, the need for tax amendments was quite predictable. My interest was drawn to the VAT Amendment Bill 2023 where the government decided to lift the 18 percent VAT exemption on baby diapers but reinstate the tax exemption on adult diapers.

The underlying rationale was that inasmuch as diapers were non-degradable; adult diapers could be exempted on grounds of being considered as “medical goods”. Lawmakers quashed this proposal, but passed the 18% VAT proposal on all diapers. Some voices held that it would be discriminatory to tax baby diapers and exempt the others from taxation. I agree. 

Unfortunately, the voices that shouted on behalf of poor women who may not afford such a basic need for raising infants, were overpowered by the gender-blind. Abraham Maslow holds that human security and safety constitute the second level of human needs which assure our well-being. Whereas it is factual that diapers are not a basic need for infants to grow, yours truly is convinced that they are significant for their well-being and that of mothers. 

I will share a short story to demonstrate how taxation of diapers will become a form of structural violence against mothers. This is the kind of violence that is created by legal, social or cultural structures directly or indirectly designed to cause disproportionate harm to certain segments of society by suffocating their ability to enjoy basic needs. A friend of mine attended a family gathering in the village. He was happy to meet cousins that he last met in his early childhood, especially Mariah with whom they played as infants. Mariah had a five-month-old baby, and my friend was happy to be called an uncle. 

However, my uncle was bothered by something he observed. Mariah faced a hard time handling her baby who kept crying to attract her mother’s attention amidst her domestic chores. Uncle and others who tried to help were met with hesitancy from their cousin whenever they tried to hold the toddler. He would later find out that the baby was not strapped with diapers to keep him clean since his mother could not afford many of them, hence her behaviour. 

The average unit cost for a diaper at our local retail stores is Shs500! The sigh of relief and smile on Mariah’s face the following day when uncle bought a packet of diapers for his niece had a lasting impression on his mind.  Anyone who cares to take note of their neighbourhood should have encountered such experiences, even within the urban settings. Uncle’s experience speaks into the unheard voices of poor mothers [and fathers] for whom the fiercely bold women Members of Parliament from opposition appealed to the government to reverse the VAT exemption on diapers.

They presented a two-fold justification: women stand to lose productive time when washing reusable nappies and legislation was under-researched especially in terms of its impact on the daily lives and livelihoods of the local people.  The Parliamentary Committee on Finance, Planning and Economic Development held that “diapers are not biodegradable which makes them an environmental hazard”. 

Whereas this factual, it arose echoes of the debate on plastic bags in my mind and I struggled to reconcile the contradiction: how can we be so blind to the extent of environmental destruction posed by plastic bags yet seem pro-active on the effect of diapers on our environment? Look around. Do we have more diapers in our garbage-stuffed water drainages than plastic bags and bottles? According to Minister of State for Finance, Mr Amos Lugoloobi, VAT on diapers is estimated to bag Shs2.6 billion in revenue. 

Some pockets of legislators found this amount insignificant vis-à-vis the impact on the lives of poor mothers. But even more, I find the estimated value of VAT on diapers laughable when juxtaposed with the value of corruption in Uganda. 
A survey carried out by IGG in 2021 revealed that the government loses Shs20 trillion annually; where taxation leakage accounts for Shs131 billion. 

In other words, a mere handful of corrupt officials can as well meet the revenue from diapers VAT and save the productive time that poor women stand to lose. 
I hope that the unheard voices of our mothers, sisters and friends can be adequately amplified to catch the attention of those privileged to be within the top echelons of power in this land.  
Authored by Augustine Bahemuka,    [email protected]