Putting a Price on Periods
Sophie Goschen scrutinises the topics of tampon tax, period poverty and sustainability
There’s a brilliant adage circling the internet that encapsulates the sheer absurdity entrenched in the tax on tampons: ‘Menstruation is the only blood not shed from violence but the blood that disgusts you the most’. The statement is hardly a revelation, but it delivers in a neat, profanity-free sentence the outrage felt by several hundred thousand activists across the globe. The ‘tampon tax’ that began in the UK in 1973 and continues to this day only goes to show the ongoing pervasiveness of the culture of shame around women’s bodies.
The tampon tax began when the UK introduced VAT in 1973. The tax was applied to sanitary products because they were ruled as ‘non-essential’ commodities. It is worth noting that male razors and condoms are not subject to this luxury tax. Neither are Jaffa cakes. Let that sink in.
Initially, the rate was set at 10%, but has fluctuated since. Following a series of campaigns and debates in parliament (2001), the Labour government reduced the rate on sanitary products to 5%. According to the BBC, this is currently “the lowest rate possible” under the European Union. However, for hundreds of women across the UK, it is not low enough.
It is worth noting that male razors and condoms are not subject to this luxury tax. Neither are Jaffa cakes. Let that sink in.
It is estimated that one in four British women suffer from period poverty. A survey in Scotland produced reports of schoolgirls using ripped t-shirts, towels, and socks when they could not afford proper sanitation, or missing school altogether during their period. The problem is even more pernicious in the homeless community; many homeless women are forced to steal or improvise with dirty clothing during their period because they cannot afford sanitary products. Without access to proper sanitation, these women and girls are vulnerable to severe health risks, along with heightened discomfort and anxiety.
However, there is hope. Charities like the Red Box Project and Street Cramps are working across the UK, aiming to provide free sanitary supplies to schoolgirls and homeless women respectively. Some businesses have begun to push back against period poverty, including Exeter’s own quayside pub ‘The Prospect’, which provides free sanitary products in the women’s bathroom. Tesco’s and Waitrose have swallowed the 5% tax and offer sanitary products at a reduced price. Additionally, the Scottish government announced that it would provide free sanitary products to all school pupils and college and university students.
Currently, there is legislation in place to remove the VAT tax on tampons, but it can only come into effect in 2022, when two pieces of vital law are supposed to be finalised. The first is Brexit, which would give the UK sovereignty over its own national taxation policies. However, if Britain has not left the EU by that date, a piece of 2017 legislation that allows all member states to reduce the VAT on sanitary products will be made law. The hope is that by 2022 the UK will be able to join Australia, India, and Canada in axing the tax on tampons, irrespective of Brexit. There is an end in sight, but is it close enough?
The question remains: which should we prioritise as a society? Accessibility or sustainability?
Today, the question of sustainability is more pressing than ever, and every move that can be made towards a greener lifestyle must be encouraged. In 2018 it was estimated that sanitary products generated more than 200,000 tonnes of waste per year, all of which contained plastic, which has resulted in a push for women to consider using more sustainable options, such as menstrual cups or period-proof underwear. However, these products are still subject to the Tampon Tax, and, while less expensive in the long-term, are still difficult for poorer women to buy and clean. The question remains: which should we prioritise as a society? Accessibility or sustainability?
Personally, I would encourage every woman who can to consider using reusable sanitary products, and to simultaneously support charities that provide more vulnerable women with regular products. Change is made from the ground up. Ultimately, period poverty is an issue of dignity as well as health, and we absolutely cannot allow the taxing of women’s bodies to go on for one second more than necessary. Period.