It is pitch dark; I’m on a public transport bus from Arusha, Tanzania, to Nairobi, Kenya, and about to cross the border between Tanzania and Kenya. Crossing the border by public transport in the middle of the night was not exactly what I had prepared for. But sometimes, things go differently than planned. As we stop, we grab our bags to get out of the bus and into the building where passport control and the security check will take place. Military with big guns makes me nervous as they poke in our sides when we are not standing in a straight line. Yet, I know that everything should be fine. As I pass passport control, it is time for the security check. Confidently, I put my bags through the scans and opened them for the security guard to check. Before I know it, he has two plastic bags with my shoes in his hands and is holding them up to me. At first, I didn’t understand what was happening and why this was an issue. Then, it dawns upon me… In Kenya, since 2017, plastic bags have been entirely banned, and bringing them into the country is not permitted.
Western countries often look down on African countries and their policies. Resulting in a failure to see the progressive policies that they can actually learn from. Kenya was one of the world’s first countries to ban plastic bags in the fight against waste. The strict penalties on the production, distribution, import, and use of plastic bags resulted in a rapid behavior change toward using fabric or polypropylene bags (source). These types of bags are much more sustainable and easier to reuse. The ban on plastic bags has left a visible change in the country where swerving plastic bags used to be part of the daily street view. On top of that, many other African countries have followed suit with their own measures to reduce plastic bag use, such as bans and tax increases.
There are many more progressive policies that are overlooked. Over the past years, more awareness has been created about the monthly costs women pay due to their menstruation. Over time, many countries have started removing or reducing taxes on menstrual products. In Ethiopia, as of 2021, the tax on menstrual products has decreased significantly, making the products more accessible to all. Interestingly, by fully removing the tax on materials necessary for producing menstrual products, local production in Ethiopia is encouraged and helps further reduce the costs of these necessary products (source).
While living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I had the privilege to visit a local factory that produces reusable pads, and I had the opportunity to cooperate with another factory. Both of these factories only hire women and offer them great support systems, including child care, a breast-feeding room, and a safe space. Moreover, local production can help start conversations about menstruation and increase awareness with a direct link between producers/factory workers, and consumers.
In 2004, Kenya was the first country in the world to fully remove taxes on menstrual products. It took another 10 years before the next country, Canada, followed. Nowadays, countries like South Africa and Rwanda have also followed suit (source). Most European countries still have menstrual products taxed at reduced rates. Some of the world’s most progressive countries, like Norway, have a menstrual product tax of up to 25% (source). Kenya took their progressive policies with regard to menstrual hygiene management even further. In 2017 they signed a law that requires schools to provide free sanitary pads to female students (source). Only New Zealand and Scotland have comparable progressive laws in place.
Western countries, especially Western-European countries, often pride themselves as welfare states with progressive policies. Yet, they fail to recognize the successes of other countries and learn from them. Besides the successful Kenyan plastic bag ban and the progressive policies regarding taxing menstrual products, there are many more policies originating in African countries that other countries can learn from. Mobile payment through “M-Pesa” was already available in Kenya since 2007. Uganda has a “self-reliance” policy for refugees, often supporting them with a piece of land for agriculture (source). Countries such as South Africa, Angola, and Tanzania all provide “The Pill” as free contraception, in contrast to European countries such as Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland (source). To speed up progress, we need to learn from all countries around the world, independent of their Human Development Index or political orientation. It is time to recognize these types of progressive policies, celebrate their successes and learn from them.
Author: Véronique Sprenger