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.
Netflix’s Period: End of Sentence, an uplifting film about menstruation in India, won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short! This prestigious award was won even after an anonymous Oscar judge said men would not vote for the film because “it’s just icky for men.”
2019 has been a BIG year for menstrual equality in England. After the inspiring Amika George launched the #FreePeriods campaign, things really took off. The government listened and took action. First schools offered free menstrual products, and a few months later the NHS followed.
3. Period books galore
This is the year of the period books. From the Children’s book The Moon Within to books such as the Managed Body and Period Power, the beauty of periods and the strength of menstruators’ activism is showcased in beautiful hardback. Oh – and let’s not forget Germany’s ingenious effort to curtail the tampon tax… the tampon book!
March brought the fantastic #MyAlwaysExperience campaign to Kenya. Women called for a boycott of Always sanitary towels, accusing the manufacturer, Proctor & Gamble, of supplying the African market with substandard products. Their experiences ranged from rashes, itchiness, bad smell and discomfort. The campaign showed the power of voices to stand up to the injustice of low-quality menstrual products!
5. Periods took the issue
In May, periods literally covered the May issue of Scientific American, which for the first time focused a whole issue specifically on women’s reproductive health! What is the real purpose of a period? What are the consequences of gaps in medical understandings of menstruation? All was answered in this special edition.
When the discussion of women’s reproductive health is dominated by the political will to control it, gaps in medical research get overshadowed. Our May issue explores what we don’t know, why we don’t know it, and where we go from here: https://t.co/uK1KLGad2Hpic.twitter.com/jxxgqmTi1y
In April, the value-added tax on period products went from 15% to 0% in South Africa, all through the bloody hard work of the #BecauseWeBleed & #TamponTaxMustFall campaigns.
Organising a march takes a lot of time and effort and today I led my first. Thank you to everyone who supports #BecauseWeBleed and stood with us today. Thank you to those who were in spirit and continue to provide donations of pads. We will continue to fight till out cry is heard pic.twitter.com/gqch7Rs55I
2019 saw the newest emoji make crimson waves across social media thanks to Plan International UK and a number of other fantastic activists. The red blood droplet is symbolic of menstruation and also of the fact that periods are not shameful!
We are thrilled to announce that we are actually getting a #PeriodEmoji!
It is through your support that we can now celebrate that the @unicode have announced that we will get our first ever #PeriodEmoji in March 2019 ?
This year saw more states in the US eliminate the ‘tampon tax’ – including Louisiana and Utah. That now makes a total of nine states which have given menstrual products a medical supply tax exemption, aligning them with products like condoms, dandruff shampoo, gauze and chapstick.
9. ‘Nothing’s more cuterus than your uterus’!
A medical congress in Bengaluru shot period pads to the headlines by creating the longest line of sanitary pads EVER! This Guinness World Record included about 500 people who arranged more than 10,000 pads in a line stretching up to 1,078 metres long. It took almost 8 hours to complete!
This Menstrual Hygiene Day is set to be bigger and better than ever. Bringing together activists, program staff, people who menstruate and many more there’s a whole flow of social media movement today. Check out Girls’ Globe’s Menstrual Hygiene Day Facebook Live, where we challenged taboos and stigma by busting some myths around menstruation.
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.
Irise International works to support the education and empowerment of women and girls in East Africa through addressing the neglected issue of menstrual hygiene management. In this series of blogs, we look at how menstrual hygiene can affect all girls in a range of cultures and environments. In the first of these blogs, Laura Coryton, a guest blogger, explains the detrimental effect tampon tax can have on gender identity and involvement in society in the UK. All over the world women and girls are held back from their full potential, and we want this to change. To find out more about the work Irise do please visit www.irise.org.uk.
Sanitary tax is a damaging worldwide phenomenon that needs to end. Period. Hundreds of governments across the globe implement a tax on menstruation: a natural bodily function that happens whether we want it to or not. A small tax on tampons, sanitary pads and mooncups may seem justifiable in theory (everything has to be taxed just a little, right?) but in practice and in context it exacerbates skewed priorities that systematically alienate women and trans men from society and places further shame on the female body. Millions are losing out to this tax and it’s not just wallets that are hurting as a result.
Women and trans men are significantly underrepresented in the vast majority of governments across the world. Unfortunately, this means that issues associated with them don’t necessarily gain the traction they deserve. Tampon tax is just one example of the dangers of this.
In the UK, for example, tampon tax was implemented in 1973, at a time when female MPs were so few and far between that they held very little power in Parliament. Consequently, policy making failed to properly consider a woman’s worth in the UK. Parliament was able to sideline women and push through a tax on sanitary products simply because the exiting political elite didn’t extend power to the female hand.
The dangers of implementing tampon tax affect the relationship that women and trans men form with their place in the rest of society. Implementing a tax that explicitly penalises an already marginalised demographic is bad for the world because it lessens incentives for that subsection to engage in a society where they are heavily underrepresented politically. More to the point, why should anyone engage in a society that penalises them for having ovaries at birth and actively discourage them financially from engaging in society in any kind of a socially acceptable way when they are menstruating? If I should consider my tampon a luxury, I must also consider my use of that tampon a luxury, along with my ability to work, socialise and simply exist whilst menstruating. Tampon tax doesn’t just signify female alienation. It represents active exclusion and unavoidable chastisement enforced upon women from birth. Where sanitary tax continues to be implemented, this notion only grows stronger.
The tampon tax also fails society on a medical level. Clean and functional sanitary products are crucial to ensuring that women don’t jeopardise their health whilst dealing with menstruation. I once received an email, asking me why women can’t just ‘stuff used newspaper up there and shut up’. I replied by reminding the sender that vaginas and letter boxes are two separate entities. We care for our bodies and we should care for our vaginas too. Leaving anything unclean in or on your body for too long is clearly a bad idea. Implementing a monetary barrier to access of a vital health product we need to use, whether we like it or not, hurts the health of society. It’s that simple.
Ultimately, the tampon tax solidifies the period taboo within the psyche of society, imprinting yet more shame on the female body. Somehow periods have become a bad thing. They have evolved into an inevitable embarrassment; something to conceal; something only women need to deal with alone, away from the eyes and ears of the general public. Tampon tax has capitalised on this. If we feel like we can’t talk about periods, we won’t talk about a tax on menstruation. If we don’t talk about tampon tax, how can we ever change it?
While there are heaps of harms to backing tampon tax (which separates it from other taxes that we might also deem unfair) there are virtually no benefits to supporting it. The average tax rate set on sanitary products around the globe is 20%. The French Government has recently refused to drop tampon tax simply because they argue it makes them too much money. Besides the obvious point that they probably shouldn’t be making money out of sexism, this argument isn’t simply false. On average, a woman will spend between €30 and €60 on sanitary products each year, lending an average of €9 a year to the taxman in a country collecting 20% tampon tax. The French population (roughly 64 million, of which around 15 million will menstruate) will raise approximately €130 million from tampon tax each year. Although this might sound like a lot, it only constitutes 0.01% of the 2013/14 annual tax revenue raised by France. Essentially, it’s not enough to justify the harms it imposes (not that any amount should ever be enough to mitigate misogyny).
For as long as tampon tax continues, women and trans men will continue to be alienated and marginalized from society, their place within which will be jeopardized along with their health. It’s time to reduce tampon tax to the lowest rate of tax possible in every country and to declassify it as a luxurious good. Period.