‘This is one step towards ending period shame, fighting period poverty and securing a more female-focused political agenda.’ – Laura Coryton, 2020
Ahh, the elusive tampon tax. This highly controversial and debate-sparking feminist issue has been a subject on campaigners’ lips for decades, after its introduction in 1973. Since the UK joined the ‘European Economic Community’ in 1973, all sanitary products have been categorised as ‘non-essential, luxury goods’ and have had 5% VAT (value-added tax) included in their price. But from January 1st 2021, it has been announced that a zero rate will be charged on sanitary products, marking a huge victory in the struggle against period poverty. However, it is safe to say that this battle has not been an easy one.
This victory comes after a hard-fought and politically-charged fight, as campaigners have been lobbying MPs to ditch the unfair tax practically since its introduction. Two decades ago, Labour MP Dawn Primarolo successfully campaigned to have the VAT on sanitary items cut from a ridiculous 17.5% to 5%, a landmark event in this battle towards equality. In 2014, feminist campaigner Laura Coryton launched a petition for the abolition of the Tampon Tax, after discovering that items like jaffa cakes, crocodile steaks, private jet maintenance, and even edible sugar flowers are not classified as ‘luxury items’ under VAT rules. This petition gained over 300,000 signatures and led to a huge rise in the profile of this equality issue. Yet, very little action was taken. This was attributed to the EU-wide rules on VAT, which stated that the tax rates on certain supplies, like (you guessed it) sanitary products, could not fall below a minimum of 5%.
However, 2015 marked a large step forward made by the UK government, despite these restraints imposed by the EU; George Osborne, who was Chancellor at the time, announced that the whopping £15 million raised from the Tampon Tax would be used to support women’s charities in the UK. Nonetheless, the decision to pass the tax money to women’s charities was not without controversy – it emerged in 2017 that £250,000 of the money was donated to ‘Life’, a charity that campaigns against abortion. Indeed, the Tampon Tax sparked even more debate in 2015, when it became an unlikely pawn in the convoluted chess game that was Brexit. It was under the EU’s VAT directive that the UK government was prevented from reducing the tax rate on sanitary items beyond 5%, and thus many of those in favour of Brexit posited this fact amongst their arguments. Following the UK’s departure from the EU, Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced in the 2020 Budget that the levy will be ditched when the UK’s Brexit transition period ends, with the tax cut amounting to ‘7p off a pack of 20 tampons and 5p off a pack of 12 pads.’
One of the arguments posed by those opposed to the abolition of Tampon Tax is that the taxed amount is so insignificant that it is ‘petty’ to attempt to get rid of it. This standpoint misses two major things: the actual figures surrounding Tampon Tax, as well as the societal significance of it. In a lifetime, the average woman will spend £5,120 on sanitary products, £256 of which is on VAT – a significant sum to say the least. Furthermore, 1 in 10 women and AFABs (people Assigned Female At Birth) in England aged 14-21 cannot afford sanitary products. Moreover, the social stigmatisation of periods and the debate over ‘Menstrual Equity’ demonstrate why this is more than an issue of money, and rather an issue of rights.
Over the years, campaigns have emerged which encourage state policies to provide menstrual products for women. ‘#Freeperiods’ is a campaign started by Amika George who ran a petition aimed at encouraging the UK government to provide low-income families with subsidised menstrual products, especially focusing on the effects of period poverty on education. The campaign has grown exponentially since; the initiative has recently paired up with ‘The Red Box Project’, which is a community-based initiative that provides free menstrual products and underwear to young women who struggle financially. 137,000 students have missed school due to period poverty, demonstrating that this is an issue which is affecting the educational rights of our future leaders. Coryton, who launched the original petition to abolish the Tampon Tax has said: ‘The end of this tax symbolises the end of a symptom of sexism and the period taboo, which has created period poverty and has stopped girls from going to school.’
But the issue of period poverty is not just a problem in the UK, with governments all around the world seeking to reconcile the issue. In 2004, Kenya was the first country to abolish sales tax for menstrual products; Canada removed its tampon tax in 2015 following an online petition signed by thousands, and the Canadian government is currently debating whether to make menstrual products free in the workplace; India eliminated its 12% tax on feminine hygiene products in 2018; Rwanda scrapped their VAT on sanitary products in 2019 in response to school absence and dropouts of 18% of Rwandan women and girls who were unable to attend school or work due to not being able to afford feminine hygiene products. Closer to home, in 2017 a pilot programme began in Scotland to have free sanitary products available at schools and food banks for women who cannot afford them. It was believed 1,000 girls would benefit from the scheme, as a study by the WHO and UNICEF showed that one out of five women in Scotland have been forced to improvise with items including toilet paper and old clothes due to the high cost of commercial products. The scheme was launched to improve attainment and school attendance, as well as improve confidence amongst teenage girls during their period; Scotland has been a real trailblazer in the war against period poverty, as they are the first country in the world to give out free sanitary products as part of a government-sponsored initiative.
The Tampon Tax essentially taxes women for being women. Those who menstruate are forced to bear the economic burden, as they have no choice other than to buy these products. This is why the change in law regarding the Tampon Tax really matters, and why this is a feminist issue. The worldwide campaigns surrounding period poverty demonstrate that what matters in today’s society is motivated by a desire for equality and change; the Tampon Tax represented a form of discrimination which disproportionally affected poor women and served to solidify social taboos surrounding menstruation. This is why it matters so much. Yet, the removal of tax is not where this issue ends. Those experiencing period poverty will continue to struggle if governments do not change their outlook on the matter. It is perhaps overly optimistic to assume all governments could provide their population with free sanitary products, but this is what we should be ultimately striving for. It is only by bringing the topic of period poverty into open discussion and debate that we can counteract the social stigmatisation of menstruation, and force governments to actively engage in this enduring battle.
By Megan, Senior Prefect
Photo Credit: David R. Frazier / Photo Researchers / Universal Images Group