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.
I can still remember how I felt when I got my first period. I was scared, confused and really not sure what was happening to my body. My mother took me aside and explained that I was becoming a woman.
She taught me how to use a sanitary pad, but emphasized that this was a deeply personal experience to be kept private. As an obedient daughter, I didn’t share my menstrual matters with anyone – not my siblings, not my friends, not my father, no-one. It was my secret to bear silently.
Young girls are taught from their first period that menstruation is taboo and dirty.
They are taught that however natural it is, it’s also shameful, disgusting and a source of impurity. I learnt early that menstruation was not to be discussed openly, and I understood that no-one should be made aware of it.
All of this appears deeply illogical when you consider that nearly half the world’s population will go through menstruation in their lifetime. How has modern society managed to convince us all that menstruation, a natural bodily process, is a social and spiritual abomination?
As a woman in her late twenties, it is only now that I have decided to change my perspective regarding menstruation.
The emotional and spiritual work I have been doing in last two years has helped me realize that menstruation is something beautiful, sacred and worthy of celebrating. This realization has required a process of unlearning the beliefs and ideas I held about menstruation. It has also required me to embrace my body and love it in all its phases and manifestations. I’m learning to tap into the sacred power of menstruation and to understand what it means to be divinely feminine.
Menstruation is a gift. Think about it.
It is a process that allows us to give birth to new life. It’s a function of the wondrous uterus, a self-cleansing and purposeful organ. Menstruation is an experience that unifies women across the world. It reminds us of our great feminine abilities. How can we not celebrate this? Menstruation is deserving of more recognition and appreciation.
In many ancient cultures, menstruation was seen as a sacred and precious time. Due to the connection of the cycle to the moon phases, menstruating women were believed to harness great ‘shamanic’ and spiritual power. Anthropologists suggest this may explain the use of menstrual huts in certain cultures, originally intended as safe spaces for women to retreat at the ‘height of their powers’.
In honouring menarche, different cultures celebrate a girl’s first period. They view it as a right of passage in to womanhood and mark the occasion with a ritual or cultural practice. Menstruation is given the respect and the regard it is worthy of.
What if we chose to look at menstruation differently?
Let us remove the stigma and shame. We have an opportunity to embrace and acknowledge something beautiful and fascinating. Beyond the biology, menstruation is a spiritual time that allows women to connect to a deeper part of themselves. It’s a time to release old and negative energies, and begin a new phase of self-growth and reflection. To me, that sounds like something worth celebrating.
Today, my period came a couple of days earlier than usual so it caught me off guard at work. I asked a co-worker if she had a pad or tampon I could borrow. She handed me a case that she expected me to take to the bathroom and return.
Instead, I opened it and took out the pad. She looked at me and asked, “don’t you mind walking around with it?” I replied, “I don’t, it’s perfectly natural.” When I returned to my desk I started thinking…why is being in your period still frowned upon? God forbid someone hears you say the word ‘menstruation’, because it is ‘rude’ to talk about the topic in public.
It’s 2019 and the cashier at the drug store still looks at me strangely when I buy tampons and say no thank you when she offers me a plastic bag. How dare I walk down the street without hiding my malign purchase?
This experience I had at work came at a very convenient moment since last week the documentary Period. End of Sentencewon an Oscar. This brilliant documentary shows us how women in rural India fight for menstrual equality. But our sisters in India aren’t the only ones battling with this issue.
At least 500 million women and girls globally lack space and supplies for handling their periods.
In Mexico, where 44% of our women live in poverty, many don’t even have access to decent period care, let alone healthcare supplies. This lack of healthcare access causes them to live in hygiene crisis and at risk of infection.
In some countries, menstrual supplies are no longer taxed and in others they are totally free of cost. Governments needs to be on our side with these initiatives so women from more vulnerable social situations don’t have to choose between food on their plate or menstrual supplies.
As women, we need to empower other women to speak freely about their periods without embarrassment or shame.
We need to speak our minds when we are faced with stigma and taboo.
Men need to stop ignoring or repelling us whenever we talk about menstruation and get involved in listening to what this process means to us and how we get through it.
It’s 2019. Menstruation is natural. Let’s end period taboo once and for all.
Last week, an eighteen-year-old girl died in a menstrual hut in Achham, a remote far western district of Nepal, according to a news report.
In August 2017, Nepal’s parliament passed a law criminalizing a deep-rooted tradition called Chhaupadi which forces women to leave their homes and stay in a ‘menstruation hut’ during their period. However, this most recent death suggests little or no progress has been made in implementing the new law.
Parbati Budha was bitten twice on her finger by a venomous snake while banished during her period. There was no one nearby to take her to the hospital immediately after the snakebite as her parents and neighbors were far from the menstrual hut. As a result, she was deprived of the medical treatment that would have allowed her to survive.
This is a painful incident. Even more painful is the fact that that no one can say for sure that this death will be the last.
In January this year, 22-year-old Gauri Budha was found dead by her neighbors inside a menstrual shed. In July 2017, Tulasi Shahi, 19, was bitten twice by a venomous snake and died. On 18 November 2016, 21-year-old Dambara Upadhyay from Timilsen village was discovered dead in a hut while 15-year-old teenager Roshani Tiruwa of Gajra died on 17 December of the same year.
Exact figures are difficult to find as statistics are not well-maintained by the government, but it is believed that dozens of women die every year across Nepal in the name of tradition.
Generally, menstrual huts are constructed away from homes so that menstruating women are out of sight and unable to touch male members of households. Most menstrual huts are single-room buildings with small doors. Huts either have no windows or very small ones, and poor sanitation and ventilation.
As a result, women can die from suffocation or from snake or scorpion bites. During a visit to various districts in western Nepal, I spoke with many women and girls who shared their fears of being attacked by wild animals and snakes while isolated in menstrual huts.
Taboo and stigma surrounding menstruation is deep-rooted. In some parts of the country, menstruating girls are not allowed to eat with their family members, nor are they allowed to enter the kitchen. They are forbidden from touching male members of the family, as well as neighbors, cattle, and growing fruit and vegetables. Seclusion is practiced in its most extreme form in mid and far western regions of the country, where menstruating women are banished to sleep in a shed.
In my observation, there is not one single reason behind menstrual taboo and stigma. Instead, multiple factors have contributed to the continuity of this inhumane tradition.
The first reason I found for menstruating women following the practice is their fear that if they don’t, the Gods will be angry and will bring misfortune to their family. Another reason is fear of isolation from society. I don’t think any parents actually want their daughters to sleep in cow sheds, but they cannot stand against the tradition as they fear the isolation from society that would result.
The government should make a strong commitment to ending this inhumane practice of secluding menstruating women. The tradition is claiming lives of many women and girls, and it’s the responsibility of the government to provide more than just lip service to end all forms of discrimination against women and girls.
After hearing each news report on the death of a woman or girl in a menstrual shed, I ask myself: how many more women must die before social mindsets and attitudes change?
This question troubles me. The government must realize that the country cannot afford the cost of inaction. Sincere efforts from all concerned stakeholders are required to ensure a society where no woman is banished to sleep in a shed because of an unavoidable, natural process. The government should not remain indifferent to the pain and suffering the women of Nepal face while following the Chhaupadi ritual and facing its consequences.
Smashing taboos around menstruation is about upholding women’s rights and dignity. I disown the whole culture of menstrual restrictions, as I believe that no culture, religion or country has the right to dub a woman’s period a ‘sin’ or ‘impure’. Periods are natural. Banishment and seclusion of women for a natural biological process is nothing more than superstition. It’s time to debunk the myths surrounding menstruation to ensure that no woman should suffer again.
Menstrual Hygiene Day was first started in 2013 to bring together NGOs, governments, the private sector, media and individuals to promote Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM). The day aims to raise awareness of the challenges women and girls face worldwide because of their periods, as well as the solutions that address those challenges.
All over the world, girls are forced to miss days of school because they don’t have access to sanitary products or to private bathrooms where they can comfortably manage their periods. Not having the means to manage their periods properly can affect their health.
Stigma and taboo around periods makes these situations even more uncomfortable for girls. A girl who is shamed for being on her period will refuse to leave her house during that time of the month. Women and girls miss out on education, work and other opportunities when they don’t have the resources to manage their periods with dignity.
According to Femme International, menstruation is one of the biggest reasons why adolescent girls miss school in East Africa. Poor menstrual hygiene management is also the leading cause of reproductive tract infections in women globally.
In Kenya, girls will miss an average of 4 days of school each month, about 20% of the school year, because they don’t have access to sanitary products. In areas of Venezuela and Nepal, women and girls on their periods are forced to stay in a hut in isolation until their period is over. Although the government of Nepal made this practice illegal last year, it continues to happen and take victims who either freeze in isolation or are bitten by animals who enter the hut.
Women and girls in emergency situations, such as refugees or those living in areas affected by conflict or natural disasters, can struggle to find the resources they need to manage their periods. Over 26 million displaced girls and women are estimated to be menstruating around the globe. Unfortunately, their ability to privately, safely and comfortably manage their menstruation tends to be an overlooked issue in crisis situations.
To address this particular issue, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the International Rescue Committee, supported by Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises, created the MHM in Emergencies Project. This partnership has produced a series of toolkits on addressing menstrual hygiene management in emergencies so that displaced women and girls can feel safer and more comfortable.
Around Menstrual Hygiene Day, many organizations and individuals are taking action, raising awareness and supporting campaigns and projects.Here are three examples I love:
Meghan & Harry’s Wedding and the Myna Mahila Foundation
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry chose seven charities for people to donate money to in honor of their wedding. One was the Myna Mahila Foundation, an organization that works towards combating period stigma and empowering women in Mumbai. They educate women and girls on menstrual hygiene management while providing them with low-cost sanitary products. They also employ women from Mumbai’s slums to manufacture and sell those products in their communities, providing women and girls with stable employment, a reliable network, and better health. They currently reach over 10,000 women a month, and by the end of 2018 they aim to increase that to 5,000 women per month.
Diana Sierra is the co-founder and CEO at Be Girl Inc, a social enterprise focused on making menstrual protection accessible to all women and girls, supporting their autonomy to pursue the opportunities that can radically improve their quality of life. Diana built her career in industrial design as a consultant, working for almost 10 years for different multinational companies and consultancy firms such as on Smart Design, Frog Design, Nike, Panasonic, Energizer and Tommy Hilfiger.
So far, BeGirl has reached 25 countries and a total of 33,000 Be Girl panties and flexipads have been distributed globally. Be Girl has covered 790,680 periods and reached 2,200 girls and boys with ‘SmartCycle’ education and sexual reproductive health workshops in their ‘Building Cycles of Empathy’ program.
Davinia James and the Hope and Dreams Initiative
The Hope and Dreams Initiative aims to change the reading culture of underserved communities in Africa, particularly in Nigeria. This organization teaches girls about hygiene, including menstrual hygiene, as well as providing free sanitary products and education on how to use them.
This year, Davinia James, founder of the Pennies4Girls Project, has partnered with the Hope and Dreams Initiative to help girls in Nigeria who are deprived of an education because of their periods. They are currently raising funds to build WASH libraries and provide access to sanitary products. Their programs will provide girls with the necessary menstrual products to enable them to attend school even during their periods.
If this is an issue you’re passionate about, I encourage you to join this global movement and take action. All of us deserve the ability to manage our periods with dignity and none of us should be deprived of opportunities because of menstruation. As Davinia would say, if this is a cause you care about, don’t ask for permission to do something about it, just do it!
I believe change is possible, and I envision a world where girls in remote rural areas as well as other disadvantaged communities like mine can have their periods with dignity.
In this world, girls will not have to miss out on classes because they have no proper sanitary wear. For so many young girls, menstruation is an addition to the long list of gender disparities they face every day of their lives. I find it almost unbelievable that having to go through a period without appropriate sanitary wear can infringe on the most basic human rights of girls – including access to education.
In Zimbabwe, many girls attending schools in remote rural areas and other disadvantaged areas – such as farming communities – stay at home for the entire length of their periods due to fear of soiling themselves in the presence of others. Sometimes they use discarded cloth, but this does not offer sufficient protection on their long walks to school. It is these fears which prompt them to stay home and miss out their classes. If girls miss out on classes, they won’t be able to excel in their studies, which not only impacts negatively on the girl child herself, but on her community as a whole.
The education of girls is undeniably one of the primary focus areas of development efforts, as female school achievement is believed to have long-lasting and far-reaching economic effects. I believe that it’s imperative to provide free sanitary wear for disadvantaged girls in order to help secure a brighter future for all.
To illustrate further, the difficulty of using cloth while on your period is that you need to constantly wash, dry and change the cloth. However, schools don’t have facilities where girls can wash themselves and change their cloths, and there is nowhere to hang cloths to dry. This helps to explain why many stay home once a month, and demonstrates the importance of free provision of sanitary wear to girls from disadvantaged communities.
Stigma and gender disparities are still rife within many communities in Zimbabwe, and it should be noted that the subject of menstruation remains a taboo. Parents don’t discuss it with their children, which leaves girls to suffer from pain and shame in silence.
In my community, there are many negative cultural attitudes associated with menstruation, including the idea that menstruating women and girls are ‘contaminated’, ‘dirty’ and ‘impure’. Stigma puts girls in an extremely difficult position – if they don’t have proper sanitary wear, they soil themselves, and if they are seen, they risk being segregated.
I believe that one day, girls from disadvantaged communities like mine will be free to experience their periods with dignity. They will be able to attend school, excel in their studies and, above all, stand and fight against stigma and discrimination. I believe that this begins with access to free sanitary wear for all girls.