Tampon Tax and the Fight for Menstrual Equity

Are menstrual products a necessity or a luxury?

In the United States, products are taxed based on whether they are ‘necessities’ or ‘luxuries’. Products deemed luxuries include a sales tax – on average this tax is 6.25%. Products considered necessities do not. Medications, shampoo, ChapStick and Viagra are some examples of products exempt from the tax.

Products not considered necessities, and therefore not exempt from sales tax in the majority of American states? Tampons and pads.

Currently, only ten states have removed menstrual products from the list of taxed items. Nevada is the most recent to do so – their exemption came into action January 1, 2019. Other states include New York, Illinois, and Florida, plus Washington, DC.

In an interview from 2016, former president Barack Obama spoke about the issue: “I have to tell you, I have no idea why states would tax these as luxury items […] I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.”

For those who do not menstruate, this may not seem like a significant issue. But as Obama agrees, it is an issue of gender inequality and access to healthcare.

“The basic idea is that women should not be at a disadvantage in the health-care system and this is just one more example of it, which I confess I was not aware of until you brought it to my attention,” he explains.

The financial burden of sales tax on menstrual products is a significant health and economic issue.

According to the office of California assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, “women in California pay about $7 per month for 40 years of tampons and sanitary napkins.” That’s a total of more than three thousand U.S. dollars per year. Garcia pointed out that this issue “is not insignificant […] especially if you’re on a tight budget.”

The added cost of sales tax on menstrual products leaves many with a difficult choice: buying menstrual products or buying food. Women are largely already at an economic disadvantage due to the gender wage gap and poverty. Around 14% of girls and women in the USA – compared to 11% of boys and men – live below the poverty line.

“Having your period when [you’re] poor means that once a month you have the added stress of finding a way to pay for these essentials,” Garcia said in a Facebook post.

Several campaigns and organizations are bringing awareness to the issue of menstrual equity in the USA.

There’s PERIOD, a non-profit organization promoting the belief that menstrual care is a basic right. Distributing Dignity provides bras, tampons, and pads to women in need. Period Equity is a law and policy organization fighting for menstrual equity.

There are also awareness initiatives, such as Menstrual Hygiene Day, which highlight “the challenges women and girls worldwide face due to their menstruation.”

Most recently, the issue gained global attention when Period. End of Sentence won an Oscar for best short documentary. The film tells the story girls and women in Hapur, India where a machine was installed to create affordable sanitary pads. It also discusses the girls’ and women’s experience with menstruation stigma.

Efforts towards gender equality must include menstrual equity.

Menstrual products are undoubtedly necessities and not luxuries for those who need them. As long as women are required to spend more on essentials, we will remain at an economic disadvantage.

Removing Barriers to the Fulfilment of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

During this year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), I had the privilege of attending an event on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) promoted by EngenderHealth. The 2017 theme for the CSW was “Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work”. It may seem as though the topic of sexual and reproductive health and rights does not fit into this theme, but in fact there is a strong link between economic empowerment and sexual and reproductive rights.

For women to truly be able to enjoy economic empowerment and equality with men in the workforce and elsewhere, they need to be given the information they need to make decisions about their bodies and reproductive choices. Unplanned pregnancies during adolescence, contracting an STI, HIV/AIDS, and having to deal with the complications of childbirth are all examples of situations that put women at a disadvantage to men economically and in the workforce. With the proper knowledge and access to services, women, starting at a young age, can be empowered to take charge of their bodies and lives.

Two main barriers stand in the way of the fulfilment of sexual and reproductive health rights for women worldwide:

1) Policies that restrict information and access to SRHR services

2) Lack of comprehensive sexual education for young people

A main topic of discussion throughout the event was the reinstatement of the global gag rule by American president Donald Trump. This is a prime example of the kind of policies instituted by governments which limit and restrict access for both women and men to essential information and services such as family planning, STI testing, HPV vaccinations, and pre- and post-natal care, just to name a few. Unfortunately, decisions that affect millions of people worldwide still rest on the hands of a few with the political power to do so, and that’s why it’s important for the civil society to keep their governments accountable, as well as to take action in the areas of society where they can have power, such as in education.

The saying that knowledge is power is especially true when it comes to the sexual and reproductive health and rights. However, despite the importance of sex education for young people, especially young women, in most parts of the world sex education is lacking in formal education. And this isn’t just a problem in the developing world: in the United States, for example, out of the country’s 50 states, only 24 plus the District of Columbia (DC) require sex education in schools. Something that was brought up by some in the audience and addressed by the panelists is the need to make sex education empowering for young people; it should speak their language, and take advantage of the technology they use, so that what they learn can actually help them make wise choices regarding sexual and reproductive health in their everyday lives.

One thing that is important to point out is that sexual and reproductive issues are intersectional: women’s race, educational level, and economic standing also play a role. For example, in the United States rates of teen pregnancy are higher among black and hispanic women than white. The birth rate per 1,000 females between the ages of 15 and 19 in 2014 for white women was of 17.3, while for black women it was 34.9, and 38 for hispanic. A comprehensive sex education, then, should also take into consideration these intersectional issues.

At the end of the event, the overall message was clear: now is the time to act. Those committed to sexual and reproductive health and rights must not be discouraged in the face of the challenges, but encouraged that despite them – despite the global gag rule and precarious sex education in many parts of the world – positive achievements have been made. The teen pregnancy rate in the United States has hit a record low in recent years, and maternal mortality worldwide has also decreased dramatically. These positive reports exemplify that investing in sexual and reproductive health and rights actually gives results. And ultimately, the reason why this issue is so important is that removing the barriers to SRHR fulfillment isn’t just going to benefit women – it’s going to benefit their whole society.

A Seat at the Table with Indego Africa

We have all heard the battle cry for education from the first lady, Michelle Obama and the call for inclusion from GIWPS Executive Director Melenne Verveer. Both women have been in the spotlight for their views and work with women and girls, specifically individuals living in impoverished areas or post conflict zones. Both women are sending the same message: Women and girls need to be seen as active drivers of progress and development, and we need to be better at including them in these processes.

We know the facts and we have the data, and it proves that women don’t just deserve to be part of the magical operation called decision making but it also makes monetary sense as well as humanitarian sense. We are here, we are humans and we are capable of playing an active role in our legislative, judicial, parliamentary and governmental bodies so give us a seat at the freaking table.

Since we have all these facts and data that prove the importance of educating girls and including women in the legislative process, why are there so few countries and organizations with women in leadership roles and why is the amount of funding for secondary education in marginalized communities so low?

Unfortunately I don’t have the answer to these questions, but I can share information about organizations that are making tremendous strides towards change. Recently I chatted with Elizabeth Coates, regional board member for Indego Africa. We shared stories about our initial interest in women and girls education as well as some of the intersecting issues within this area. Education and financial security often goes hand and hand. As women and adults, we need to feel a sense of independence a sense of self and often this is achieved by being able to say,

“Yes I did that with MY hands, MY brain, MY skills, MY money. I contributed to this family, house, community, society…I am an integral part!”

It is not hard to figure out that educating a woman really has a positive impact on countless people – but sometimes it helps to see the numbers that support that claim. Indego Africa partners with artisans in Rwanda and Ghana, and provides vocational courses as well as courses to enhance entrepreneurial skills. 52% of women graduating from their Leadership Academy in Rwanda started new businesses; in addition, 92% of IA artisans had banks in comparison to 35% of women in Rwanda.

I’m sure that IA is not the only organization partnering with local community members to empower women. So if you know of an organization that deserves the spotlight let us know, shout it out and leave a comment.


What Happens to Community Projects after Organizations Leave?

Post Written By Annemijn Sondaal

“It’s not a drug, it’s not a vaccine, it’s not a device. It’s women, working together, solving problems, saving lives” -Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet, May 2013

Participatory women’s groups all over the world have created spaces for women to engage in dialogue, exchange their ideas and experiences and spur them to take action to improve their community’s health. The Institute of Global Health, University College London and its’ partners including Women and Children First, have shown that participatory women’s groups can, with participation of at least a third of pregnant women, cut maternal deaths in half and newborn deaths by over a third.

Women’s groups are run and attended by local women (and sometimes men), mobilising local resources to address local problems. This type of capacity-building and community-mobilising intervention is perhaps the most likely to sustain after the supporting organisation leaves, but organisations rarely investigate the long-term effect of interventions or their sustainability. This means that little is known about optimal times and methods to withdraw support, the capacities needed, and support mechanisms necessary for sustainability.
Women and Children First2

Mother and Infant Activities (MIRA) has worked with participatory women’s groups in rural Makwanpur, Nepal in collaboration with the Institute of Global Health since 2001. A paid local woman, supported by a supervisor, ran each group. She was also given a meeting manual and training. In 2008, MIRA enacted a handover strategy when the project ran to the end of it’s funding. Twelve to eighteen months passed with no intervention, and we were interested to find out what had happened to the groups. Some essential questions asked were:

  • Had they continued meeting and organising activities?
  • How had they sustained their activities?
  • If they had stopped meeting, why?

The result?

80% of the women’s groups were still ‘active’ (groups who formally conduct meetings, work on strategies and keep meeting minutes). Anecdotal evidence suggests that these groups are still active to this day.


Local importance: Women had experienced how the groups improved maternal and newborn survival. This motivated them to continue meeting and enable the next generation to learn about how to look after themselves and their babies.

Financial independence: Many groups had established maternal and child health funds. Being able to save, and have some financial independence attracted women to the group and motivated them to continue meeting. One woman told us: “When we save, we don’t have to depend on our husbands. We don’t have to beg for money.” Also, we found that many groups had increased their fund to support community activities unrelated to maternal and newborn health.

Leadership capacity: Active groups were led by a strong female community health volunteer or community leader. Or members themselves were confident in owning and leading the group. One group member told us: “MIRA showed us the way. They showed us the right track, and we are now confident to walk that track. Because of this, the group is still running.”

Those groups who were not meeting, or meeting infrequently felt that they had not been given enough time to reach the level of confidence and capacity necessary to continue activities and meetings. These groups told us they wanted more skill-based training: “If there would be [skill-based] training for the chairperson, treasurer, secretary on how to run the group, than we would have planned to do more.”

It is important to consider how interventions can continue after a project support stops. In Makwanpur, the participatory nature of the group and local embeddedness were not enough to sustain groups. They also needed leadership capacity, a unifying activity (such as the fund) and a strong belief in the value of their meeting to sustain.

Investing in Gender Parity

The World Economic Forum predicts that global gender parity won’t be achieved until 2133.  None of us fighting for it today will be around then to see what it looks like.  Yet, each of us needs to take action now to ensure our children and grandchildren experience it.

Educational Empowerment (EE) generates gender parity through microfinance in a village outside Bago in Myanmar.  Here, in the dirt covered streets, microfinance creates opportunities for women living in poverty to start small businesses.  Women earn household income, and attain increased decision-making power, self-confidence, and community influence.

making cigars_opt_opt (1)Ma Thet and Lei Lei Win spend many hours together every day sitting on one of their porches rolling cigars.  They love to laugh and reminisce about when they were young and growing up in their village.  Ma Thet, a widow with five children, took a loan for $70 to help her continue her small cigar business.  While this may not seem like much to us, it is enough to allow her to run her cottage industry by herself, which then enables her children to stay in school rather than work to supplement the family income.

cooking 2_optMa Khin Cho runs a home shop, selling kitchen items, produce, and rice and coconut soup.  She has taken out and repaid two loans and is now using her third loan to build her business and invest in her shop. These low-interest loans empower Ma Khin Cho to significantly contribute to the family income and be an active participant in the village economy.

When a woman needs a haircut or a bride needs make-up for her special day, she goes to see Mu Mu Sein.  Her first loan was $40, her second was $50, and her third was $70.  She’s working to grow her business and buy more supplies and equipment.  The income helps her support her family and her young niece adopted after the girl’s mother disappeared on a business trip to Malaysia.

What do these women and the 400 other households who have taken out loans have in common?  100% payback!  Educational Empowerment is proud to support this loan program and empower these women.  This model also puts money back into the community by using some of the interest income to support the local school and health clinic.  Like these women, it’s beautiful.

Throughout the world, microfinance is acclaimed as THE answer to poverty and empowerment. However, if not done properly, it’s only a temporary fix. Educational Empowerment’s partner in Myanmar utilizes a model that is sustainable for the recipients. Women learn to stand on their own rather than being dependent forever on the ‘next loan’. And, their daughters are able to stay in school, rather than being pulled out to earn family income. Educational Empowerment is honored to be an essential part of creating gender parity in Myanmar through this investment.

You too can make a difference in the world’s fight for gender parity:

  • Join Girls Globe conversation on Twitter @GirlsGlobe.
  • Become a champion for women’s rights.
  • Donate to Educational Empowerment.
  • Let your voice be heard for women worldwide!

Educational Empowerment was created by women and for women and girls. EE promotes literacy and education for children, families and communities severely affected by poverty and injustice in Myanmar. By empowering women and girls through education, we position women in Myanmar to attain their equal rights.

Please visit us at www.educationalempowerment.org & follow us on Facebook,  Twitter, and Instagram.

Cover photo credit: ILO, Flickr Creative Commons

SDG 7: Access To Energy Can Lead To Gender Equity

At this time last year, the progress of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was being analyzed as their 15-year stretch was coming to a close. As I contribute to the Girls’ Globe coverage of the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) this year, I think back on an article I wrote about MDG 4: Reduction of child mortality.

​The MDGs were launched in 2000, and projected to be accomplished by 2015. Last year, I wrote about how we failed to meet the targets for MDG 4 . The UN update on MDG 4 explained that, “Despite determined global progress in reducing child deaths, an increasing proportion of child deaths are in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. Four out of every five deaths of children under age five occur in these regions.”

A few questions arose for me upon hearing about the roll out of the SDGs: “Are we just throwing the MDGs by the wayside?” and “Will the SDGs be treated in the same way; if they fail, they will be forgotten in 2030?”

Through reading about the SDGs via Girls’ Globe  and other media outlets, I found that the SDGs are not forgetting the MDGs, but learning from them and reevaluating them to include what is relevant now. In June 2012, the Rio+20 Conference, began developing the SDGs, and was dedicated to continuing the momentum of MDGs through the SDGs.

There a few fundamental differences between the SDGs and the MDGs. First, the SDGs are universal, meaning “all countries – as well as aid agencies, businesses and the public, working in collaborative partnership – will implement this bold agenda”.

Additionally, the SDGs are “zero goals”, which means that unlike the MDGs that sought to get us half way to the goal of ending poverty and hunger, the SDGs are designed to completely eradicate poverty and hunger. World Vision mentions that a, “deliberate effort will be required… to reach those living on the extreme margins of society.”

One good example of how the SDGs include items that should be prioritized in 2015 is through looking at SDG 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. Access to energy was not covered by the MDGs previously.

We know what it is like to experience a power outage in the US: food may go bad, lights are out, heat or AC is off, and of course no Netflix. Losing energy means losing productivity or leisure time, but in brief and rare instances it is a tolerable annoyance. In other places a lack of energy can have a significant impact on someone’s life. Lack of energy access is also a highly gendered problem, that disproportionately affects the lives and well-being of girls and women.

When I was in South Africa in 2011, I learned that many people rely on generators because power outages are common, and those who have generators are those who can afford them. This economic disparity affects opportunities to succeed or move out of poverty. When you lack energy, you or your children may not have a place to do homework or work after dark, lack well-lite and safe access to bathrooms located outdoors, and have no method to store or cook food.

An article from The Atlantic eloquently summarizes how women’s empowerment and access to energy are linked.

“Empowering women within those communities (lacking energy) to be more efficient in their household duties, make further gains in education, enter the workforce, and start businesses. Not only will (access to energy) provide opportunities for those often disenfranchised, but it will also help accelerate economic growth in developing countries… Access to energy could spur 50 percent of a labor force to be more productive and more engaged. A gender lens approach to energy access programs can be beneficial all the way around—for women, for local communities, and for emerging nations.”

As the energy gap closes, opportunities for women are likely to increase. Because women are the ones typically responsible for household duties in many nations, increased efficiency in the home (i.e. a place to store food or a washing machine) reduces time constraints and provides new opportunities for women to earn an income outside the home. Although there are other underlying issues involved with women being restricted by their household responsibilities, improving economic opportunities for women will help them gain more power in their household, and hopefully lead to more equitable expectations of men and women in their communities.

Unfortunately, a report by Development Progress projects that SDG 7 will not be reached by 2030. The report expects East and South Asia and Latin America to achieve the goal, however, the number of people without electricity in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to increase by 2030.

The SDG Fund is one mechanism created to work as a bridge from the MDGs to the SDGs, and alongside governments, private sector, activists, and individuals, will work towards the realization of the new agenda.  We can help ensure that these goals are reached through putting pressure on the decision makers and key actors at local and global levels to focus on improving communication and infrastructures especially in places of extreme poverty. The inception of the SDGs is an exciting and hopeful time, but also a time to learn from the past so we can make a bigger impact this time around.

Illustrations for the SDG campaign have been made for Girls’ Globe by artist Elina Tuomi.