Zlatko Simonovski: Dear visitors to the of the GBWN for Western Balkans and the Republic of Moldova’ s website, welcome to the first of a series of interviews with Macedonian sub-grantees. We are starting the series of six podcasts, as part of this project supported by the Austrian Development Agency and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, with Natasha Dokovska, director of Journalists for Human Rights. Natasha, thank you for accepting this invitation.

Natasha Dokovska: Thank you Zlatko for having me.

Zlatko Simonovski: What is the whole point of your gender-budget initiative within the GBWN project?

Natasha Dokovska: We are heading from a topic that is becoming increasingly popular, and that is access to menstrual hygiene products. Our goal is to make a cost analysis regarding the access of each woman to menstrual products, having in mind that having such an approach enables dignified and normal maintenance of this type of hygiene, and thus making enabling environment for future healthy generations.

Zlatko Simonovski: You have already conducted most of the research. What are the initial findings?

Natasha Dokovska: The initial findings show that Macedonia is unfortunately far from enabling all women to have the right to dignified menstrual hygiene, from various aspects, such as access to toilets, appropriate conditions in the toilets and what is most important the maintaining menstrual hygiene at work and at school. Most often the school toilet doors are broken, girls are ashamed to be seen, there is rarely paper there, no water in the cabinets in the toilets, and on the other hand we have a high price for the products. They are not available to all women and the system of free products has not been developed as many EU members already have. Additionally, the menstrual leave is not regulated either, i.e. those days of the month when women are not able to go to work, the menstrual medicaments are not yet on the so-called “white list” and etc. The medicaments are not free, which burdens the family budget and makes women give up on proper management of menstrual hygiene. We have a lot of women who can not afford pads or tampons and can you imagine, they are using paper instead. It is unacceptable and causes many infections. From the conversations we had with the Institute of Public Health, the number of infections among women has increased by 72%. One of the reasons is irregular products changing and using everything you find at home.

Zlatko Simonovski: Macedonia is one of the rare countries where mesnutral cup is still unknown. Why?

Natasha Dokovska: First we did not have any campaign for it. The skepticism is great because women do not know what that means. According to the WHO and numerous health organizations, it has been identified as the safest way to maintain this hype of hygiene. In our country, due to the high price, I mean the initial high price, women give up unaware of the benefits. We pay for the cup today, and we will use it in the next six years. Ignorance of the benefits is the reason why few women accept this method. The country did not express readiness to support this initiative, i.e. to subsidize it – whether through subsidies or by VAT reducing and/or price. I think especially young people would accept the menstrual cup. The cup also affects menstrual waste. Macedonia dispose 6.5 – 7 million pieces of menstrual waste, i.e. products that contain plastic that needs 500 years for decomposing. Using the mensutealant cup reduces the amount of waste. In line with this, workers in water and sanitation companies say most of the problems stem from improper menstrual discharge.

Zlatko Simonovski: Menstrual hygiene products are taxed at the regular rate of 18% VAT. You say this is pure discrimination in terms of sexual misconduct. Why do you have this attitude?

Natasha Dokovska: Menstrual hygiene products are not luxury, they can not be taxed at a rate of 18%. They should be widely available to every woman and girl. It is sex discrimination because it only applies to women. In terms of Sustainable development goals, in section 6.2, menstrual hygiene is mentioned for the first time and one of the goals is every woman to have access, and one of the ways is to reduce the price by VAT reducing its complete wave or subsidy from the state. When the purchasing power of the citizens decreases, especially in a family where there are several women and they have to spend from 1200-2000 MKD for menstrual hygiene, they will certainly not do that. They will use paper, the girls will not go to school, which is especially the case with students from rural areas. This makes Macedonia highly ranked on the menstrual poverty scale. When we started working on this five years ago, they asked us where this information came from and so on… However, the Ministry of labor and social policy recently came out with information that 74 schools have not renovated their toilets for 15 years and the other for 10 years. You can imagine what it looks like…

Zlatko Simonovski: This is the foundation of your gender-budget initiative. What tools do you plan to take in terms of advocacy, what will be the main message and to whom will you address it?

Natasha Dokovska: We are nearing the end of the costs analysis for menstrual products and availability. Upon completion, we will launch a campaign on May 28th, the day of menstrual health, when we will submit to the Government our initiative to reduce or wave VAT from menstrual products. Together with several organizations, we will ask the Ministry of Finance to reduce or wave the tax on these products, and we will also offer a way for schools to be provided with free menstrual products for every girl at the beginning of each month.

Zlatko Simonovski: What do you expect on May 28? Will the authorities have a sense for this?

Natasha Dokovska: Honestly, I am a little confused and I do not know what to answer to this question. Prior to the election, all political parties asked us and said “let’s put this in the programs”. Once they came to power and election were over, they are gone. Now there were two initiatives from two political parties that were interested, but all stopped here. When we mention VAT reduction or waving, no one wants to talk about it and they withdraw. However, we will go on. We have the support of the President’s Cabinet and they will support the initiative. I do not know about the sense. When tax cuts are demanded, we immediately have questions “what will the country live from”, but we should also think “how will we live”. How will we live if women are not able to buy such products? Let’s make this a decent place to live.