Late last year, Germany announced it will stop taxing menstrual products as luxuries, marking them instead as necessities. Starting January 1, 2020, the sales taxes or value added tax (VAT) on these products was reduced from 17% to 9%. The change has been welcomed and celebrated not just in Germany but across the world by advocates for menstrual equity and the elimination of sales taxes that mark menstrual products as luxury items.
Jule Schulte, a German journalist who started the petition to change the VAT, was asked why she thought it took so long for this change to be made in the country. She said: “The fathers of the tampon tax never had a period.”
Campaigners and activists have argued that having a period is not a choice, and therefore menstrual products should not be considered luxury items with high taxes imposed on them.
In the United States, sales taxes vary by state. In March 2019, only ten states considered menstrual products as necessities and exempted them from sales tax. In October, that number went up to 17. Still, that is only 17 out of 50 American states exempting menstrual products such as tampons – hence the term “tampon tax” – from being considered luxuries.
Some countries have completed removed any sales taxes on menstrual products, such as Kenya, which blazed the trail by removing the VAT back in 2004. Australia, Canada, and India – a country where four out of five women lack access to the products they need – also have removed sales taxes on menstrual products.
In other countries, however, sales tax on menstrual products is as high as 27%, such as the case in Hungary. This graphic hows which countries have the highest sales tax for menstrual products.
For people who don’t menstruate, this may not seem like a big deal. Still, for those who do, it is huge. Particularly for menstruators who are living in poverty or experiencing homelessness, the tampon tax contributes to a phenomenon called period poverty.
As long as period poverty – a truly global issue – persists, activists around the globe will continue to fight for the end of the sexist tampon tax.
As a European and a Swede (and an economist), I am struck by how often we discuss refugees in terms of the “cost” of accepting asylum seekers.
These conversations miss out on the many economic benefits of migration. Young refugees are often so inclined to start building their new lives that they integrate quite quickly into a new country with much to offer. We also miss the most important component of the conversation – the refugees themselves.
Wars, violence and persecution lead to people fleeing from their homes. A new report released on June 19, 2019 from UNHCR shows that 70.8 million people are now forcibly displaced worldwide – more than the UN Refugee Agency has ever recorded. Levels have doubled in the past 20 years and increased by 2.3 million people in the past year alone.
This year’s UNHCR Global Trends report states that these figures are conservative since the Venezuelan crisis is only partly reflected. According to data from neighboring nations, about 4 million Venezuelans have fled the country, which makes it one of the world’s largest displacement crises in recent history.
What do these numbers actually mean?
The majority of individuals who are forcibly displaced are Internally Displaced People (IDPs) – people who are displaced to other areas within their own country. There are 41.3 million IDPs worldwide. Refugees – people forced to flee their country because of conflict, war or persecution – accounted for 25.9 million people worldwide in 2018 (half a million more than in 2017). Asylum seekers are people outside their country of origin who receive international protection but are awaiting the outcome of their claim to refugee status. They account for 3.5 million people globally.
Now, here are some important facts:
About 80% of refugees live in countries neighboring their countries of origin
The world’s poorest countries host a third of all refugees worldwide
High income countries (like most countries in Europe) host only 2.7 refugees per 1,000 of population on average
In 2018, every second refugee was a child
Research shows that women and children are the most vulnerable in times of crisis. Sexual violence and rape is used as a weapon of war to further inhibit civilian populations to fight for peace and their fundamental human rights. One very recent case of this is Sudan today.
Europe has seen a surge of refugees since 2014. Many have risked their lives in horribly overcrowded rubber dinghies to cross the Mediterranean Sea for safety – sometime without functioning life vests. UNHCR estimates that over 17,800 people have died at sea between 2014 and 2018. In this year alone, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that 559 people have died and are missing.
The largest group of people seeking refuge in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean are from Afghanistan.
The war-torn nation was recently reported as the most dangerous country in the world, and 2018 was the most deadly year ever recorded for civilians in Afghanistan.
So what is Europe doing to support asylum seekers from Afghanistan and those crossing the Mediterranean Sea? From what I understand and see in my daily life in Sweden – not enough.
This week, the Swedish parliament voted to extend a “temporary” stringent law which has been highly criticized by humanitarian aid organizations and UN Agencies. Sweden, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and other countries in Europe continue to deport individuals back to Afghanistan – many of whom arrived in Europe as unaccompanied minors several years ago.
Sea rescues have been criminalized as NGO rescue ships are no longer permitted to work out of Italy. Pia Klemp, a German boat captain, faces 20 years in prison and horrendous fines for saving people from drowning in the Mediterranean.
Sweden is using old prisons to forcibly detain high-school attending, Swedish speaking young asylum-seekers from Afghanistan who await deportations. The wait may last several months and the migration and judicial system for asylum seekers is highly criticized. Racism is becoming more visible.
This week, a friend of mine who is an Afghani asylum seeker in Sweden was harassed by police for no reason as he got off a train. We later found out from migration officials that they have been ordered to intimidate asylum seekers so that they will be more inclined to return voluntarily.
Despite being an eternal optimist, I have a hard time seeing anything positive in this stark situation. The message that Europe is sending is that some lives are valued less than others – that some lives are just not important enough to be saved.
“While language around refugees and migrants is often divisive, we are also witnessing an outpouring of generosity and solidarity, especially by communities who are themselves hosting large numbers of refugees. We are also seeing unprecedented engagement by new actors including development actors, private businesses, and individuals, which not only reflects but also delivers the spirit of the Global Compact on Refugees,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugee Filippo Grandi.
“We must build on these positive examples and redouble our solidarity with the many thousands of innocent people who are forced to flee their homes each day.”
We are facing a European crisis that will cost us our solidarity, our humanity and our safeguarding of human rights. The price is too high. If we lose these, we won’t have anything of value left.
I am thankful to be a part of the Swedish Facebook group Vi står inte ut! (We can’t stand it!) which has become a network of 10,000 individuals working to support asylum seekers in various ways. It is through networks like this one that I witness solidarity and fire to fight for our sisters and brothers from other countries.
It is difficult to continue to read and share the stories of refugees, but we must speak the unspeakable, break the silence and fight for a change in our world today.
Women haven’t always been best suited for the leading roles. A thousand years ago, leadership depended on other skills than what is required today. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her famous speech We should all be feminists, “[…] human beings lived then in a world in which physical strength was the most important attribute for survival. The physically stronger person was more likely to lead. And men in general are physically stronger; of course, there are many exceptions.” That isn’t the case any more. Women are just as capable of being leaders as men. Yet, men are dominating as leaders in almost every sector. With less than one week to Women Deliver in Copenhagen, it’s time to reflect on why women are still underrepresented among higher positions, and how we can change that.
Over 50 percent of the population are women. Still, it’s not news that parliaments all over the world are dominated by men. Worldwide, 22 percent of the parliamentarians are women. In 37 countries, this number is below 10 percent.Parliaments in Micronesia, Yemen, Qatar, Tonga, Palau and Vanuatu only include men. Only two parliaments in the world have more women than men. However, being a Swede, I often hear people arguing that the situation is better within Europe. This is not necessarily true. Rwanda is currently the country with the most female representatives at 63.8 percent. Although the Nordic Countries are getting closer to the 50/50 line, Europe with the Nordic countries excluded, has 24.4 percent women in parliaments. Looking at the business sector, the numbers are even worse. Only 4 percent of the S&P 500 Companies CEO’s are women. Notable is that most of the female leaders are represented within the social sector, so in order to achieve equality, we cannot only look at the numbers. Women and men need to have the same possibilities of reaching higher positions within all areas.
However, there is good news too. We are on the right track. The number of female parliamentarians has doubled in the last 20 years, and we might even see a female president of the United States. Women are acknowledged as being capable of developing the same leadership skills as men, and now the situation is being discussed more than ever. Political reforms and law changes also contribute to more possibilities for women. There are also wonderful organisations and conferences focusing on the issue, like Women Deliver. This year the conference features many amazingly inspirational people, both women and men. One of the incredible female leaders who will be attending the conference is Gro Harlem Bruntland – former Prime Minister of Norway. She was in this position for 1o years, and was the youngest person and the first woman to be elected. Referred to as the “mother of the nation”, it’s clear that she is very important to Norway. Bruntland is currently a member of “The Elders” and a member of the United Nations Foundation Board. She has become a symbol for women with power and is a true role model for people all over the world.
The conference features a broad variation of people. Another interesting woman attending the conference is Moya Dodd. Dodd has been listed twice as one of the top 100 Women of Influence by the Australian Financial Review. Aside from being a part of the AFC Legal Committees with an Honours Degree in Law, she has made herself a name within the world of football, a man-dominated area. After being vice-captain of the Australian team, she made her way into the FIFA Executive Committee. She is now working on reforms to include more women within FIFA and make Women’s football more acknowledged. Dodd is an excellent example of a strong leader who breaks norms and is making a change for society; we definitely need more people like her. Want more inspiration? Read more about the amazing leaders attending the conference here.
I strongly encourage everyone to reflect on women as leaders, and why there are so few of them. We already know women are amazing leaders, so let’s take a stand for gender equality. Let’s look at peoples’ competences, skills and personalities, and less at their gender. In this way, we will give the right people influence, and see more people like Gro Harlem Bruntland and Moya Dodd. I guarantee you that we’ll create a better world for everyone once we give everyone an equal opportunity.
Terrorism, violence against women, unemployment – these are true threats that we are currently facing in Europe, yet far too often these issues are being equated with the refugee crisis that is visibly pressuring European countries. That equation is not only false, it is also a threat to our societies.
Recently, I was asked what we should do about the refugee crisis in our country (Sweden), because “refugee men and boys are coming here with a culture of violence and rape women.” I was shocked that someone so close to me could have such a perspective. Although I got angry, I realize that I can’t blame him entirely, because media is constantly painting that picture.
So, for those who may be influenced by that horrible image. Let me break it down for you in a few brief points:
Refugees are fleeing for their lives.
Don’t for a second believe that people choose to leave their homes, risk their lives on dangerous journeys and come to places where they have no security and don’t speak the language, if they had another option. Refugees are fleeing disaster, terror, violence, persecution, discrimination and poverty that makes life not worth living.
Gender based violence is a global epidemic.
The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 3 women have been subject to violence in their lifetime – and yes, those statistics are true for Europe too. At this point, I believe we are our own worst enemy if we don’t dare to see what is in our own backyard and inside our own homes. Every week, 50 women are killed in Europe by the hands of an intimate partner or ex-partner.
Europe needs immigration.
Many European countries are not going to survive their declining population, and in the long run, immigration is more than necessary for Europe to sustain societies and grow economies.
I am not turning a blind eye to the events in Cologne, Germany and similar events in Stockholm, Sweden – violence against women is always wrong – but we have a responsibility to fight gender based violence strategically. This involves strengthening gender equality and educating men and boys, as well as recognizing the differences in social norms and the status of women in the societies where migrants are from. Yet, it is a gender issue, not one of regulating the influx of refugees.
Despite my first point above, that refugees are fleeing for their lives, and despite international treaties that give them the right to seek refuge in new countries, Europe makes it close to impossible to do so. Instead of following human rights treaties and international laws, European politicians are closing borders and fostering intolerance, xenophobia and racism. To make things worse, some European countries are seizing refugees’ assets or implementing costs on “health tourism”.
This human rights issue is bigger than borders, and this opportunity too great to not take advantage of. We need to welcome women and girls, men and boys who reach our borders with hope for a better future. Alexander Betts says in his insightful TED Talk, “They’re human beings with skills, talents, aspirations, with the ability to make contributions — if we let them.” Together with them we can create a future that is better for all of us.
We need to share positive stories and we need media to reflect the true story of the individuals behind the refugee crisis. We need to spread hope – hope for safety and hope for peace. Let us be open to those who are seeking refuge instead of becoming fearful of them.
It has been an amazing year. We have seen progress for women and girls (link to Dec 22 post), and the new Sustainable Development Goals were agreed upon by the member states of the United Nations.
This has also been a year of several tragedies – including terrorist attacks in Paris, deaths in the Mediterranean, continued persecution and conflict forcing even more people to flee their homes. It is now estimated that almost 60 million people are displaced – the highest number since the Second World War.
Women and children continue to be the most vulnerable group in displaced communities. The United Nations estimate that 80% of the world’s refugees are women, children and young people. Girls are at risk for child, early and forced marriage. Women are still in need of sexual, reproductive and maternal health services, that in many times are not available to them. Gender based violence is rampant.
Today is Christmas Eve, celebrated and recognized by individuals across the globe in different ways and according to different customs, cultures and religions. It is the most celebrated day of the year in Sweden – where I come from. As you read this, people are preparing their Christmas dinner, including herring and meatballs, huddled together with the family in front of the television to watch the Disney Special, or wrapping gifts and putting together smart and witty rhymes to go with them. Christmas traditions differ from culture to culture and family to family, but one thing is generally the same – we buy things. We buy presents, we buy food, and we buy more than we ever do throughout the year.
Christmas consumption in Sweden will meet a new high this year – with an estimated economic growth of 5 % in December, equalling a revenue of SEK 75 billion (approximately USD 8.5 billion).
At the same time nationalism and xenophobia is growing in Sweden, as an increasing number of refugees are fleeing war and conflicts and seeking asylum in Sweden. The number of European migrants walking the streets of Swedish cities are record high. So far this year, almost 150 000 people have seeked asylum in Sweden (about 30 % being women and girls). This amounts to only about 0.25 % of all currently displaced people – and roughly 1.5 % of the Swedish population.
Refugees are not a burden. Refugees are individuals with hopes and dreams, who have been ripped up from their roots to come to a new and unknown place. Due to the conflicting policies of European immigration laws – many migrants choose dangerous routes to find a safe haven (learn more by watching Hans Rosling’s informative Fact Pod).
The global humanitarian community is struggling to make ends meet – to ensure that there are enough means to support the millions of refugees across the world.
I don’t wish to change the traditions of giving around Christmas time, as for me, this is a dear tradition – and I love seeing the smiling faces of children who unwrap their gifts. I also don’t want to completely criticize Swedes’ spending – as it is a means to improve the Swedish welfare economy, giving us a chance to welcome more people to live in our prospering country.
If there is something I wish for this Christmas, it is compassion, solidarity and logic.
We are living in an evermore interconnected world. For us to meet the new Sustainable Development Goals – see an end to global poverty, find solutions to conflicts and crises, and ensure gender equality – it is essential for us all to understand that we all have a role to play. We must learn more about the world we live in, to come with real and impactful solutions, that go beyond our own wallets and backyards.
Refugees will not destroy your well-being, ignorance will.
It is a privilege to live in country that can help and provide safe places for people fleeing terror, violence and hatred. It is my hope that Sweden will continue to be such a place and that more countries can follow.
There are many things you can do to learn more, starting off reading relevant articles here on Girls’ Globe (see below). However, I want to specifically list a few things that you can do to help this holiday season:
Share your home and give refugees shelter for the night, via Refugees Welcome – available in nine European countries (and growing).
Winter is here! Donate jackets, sweaters and more. Find a group on Facebook that is organizing charity runs for refugees. (Like this one in my home town Malmö).
Volunteer a helping hand. Around Europe train stations and other transportation hubs may need help to pass out information and more. Find out what is available in your city.
Support UNFPA‘s work to provide essential hygiene and maternal health to women in emergencies. $25 provides a woman with hygiene essentials for six months, enabling her to maintain her dignity. $90 buys clean birthing kits for up to 40 pregnant women who cannot get to a hospital.
Support Plan International‘s work helping families and children seeking refuge from the Syrian crisis.
Give a gift to the Women’s Refugee Commission – the only international agency dedicated solely to protecting refugee women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health care, to freedom from gender-based violence, and to economic and social empowerment.
Institutional review boards (IRBs) are ethics committees responsible for monitoring research studies involving humans, and they have specific rules to follow to keep human subjects safe. According to the IRB Guidebook developed by the US Department of Health & Human Services, vulnerable populations must be treated with special consideration when part of a research study. Prisoners are included on the list of vulnerable populations.
“Poor health and diminished sense of dignity suffered by vulnerable populations are the results of unjust public policies and practices.”
Women in prison do not often have a voice and are frequently characterized by “poor health and a diminished sense of dignity”. It is important to create awareness about this population that is typically ignored, but faces injustice due to the corrections systems’ and other government policies.
A recent CBC News article reported that self-injuries among women in Canadian prisons have “soared” in the last 5 years. From 2007-2008 there were 54 reports of self-injury among incarcerated women. From 2012-2013, however, there were 323 reports of self-injury. The article attributes the increase to an ill-equipped system that is not capable of dealing with the mental health issues of prisoners appropriately.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) website includes further information about injustices women in the US prison system face today. Some topics include, pregnancy, women’s health, rape and sexual assault, youth, and loss of parental rights while in prison. Additionally, the ACLU website includes current media coverage of issues involving incarcerated women.
Guidelines for research using human subjects have been developed based on numerous accounts of unethical research practices in the past. Prisoners have made the list of vulnerable populations for research because they had been terribly abused in research historically, and because of their precarious position in society and diminished freedoms. Prisoners might be persuaded to do something they don’t want to do or agree to participating in a research study if it would mean gaining any type of freedom in return. Prisoners might also be forced to do something because they are at the hands of those guarding them. If this is true of research studies, what does this mean for the general prison population? They can be exploited too.
What must be done to make sure there is competent and effective oversight to ensure the human rights of all of those incarcerated? If we simply forget about those millions of individuals who are incarcerated, abuses will continue.
The ALCU website includes a list of ways to ameliorate injustice for women in the overburdened US prison system. Here are some ways you can help! Some ideas include tutoring or mentoring an at-risk girl, volunteering with an organization for court-involved families, volunteering with GEMS (an organization featured in previous Girls’ Globe articles, one by myself and another by Sally Pope), supporting local after-school programs, or writing to your legislator in support of policies prohibiting incarceration of prostitution by individuals under age 18. Please see the full list of more ways to help here.
As we have seen, it is sometimes easy to forget that prisoners have rights, too. Our work towards a gender equitable world must include all women and girls – including female prisoners.