Since when are tampons a luxury? In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands in the United Kingdom responded with outrage after Parliament failed to muster the votes to abolish the national Tampon Tax—a 5 percent surcharge on “non-essential luxury items,” feminine hygiene included.
The debate took a curious turn last week, with the announcement that the £15 million in annual tax revenue will be funneled to domestic violence shelters and charities. Worthy organizations, no doubt. But talk about blood money: a tax paid solely by women, footing the bill for the aftermath of violence perpetrated almost entirely by men.
Tampons, pads and menstrual cups qualify as necessities for half the population—not an option, certainly not a luxury. Millions require them, month after month and year after year, to be productive members of society. Eliminating this tax is simply the fair and equitable thing to do.
It is a fight being waged worldwide. In October, France’s National Assembly rejected an amendment to cut the 20 percent tax its residents pay on menstrual products. Canada won big last summer with a unanimous vote to eliminate the national Goods and Services Tax on these items. Here in the United States, where sales tax is levied state by state, there exists a patchwork of carve-outs for health and hygiene items—with 40 of the 50 states collecting a tax on menstrual products. A nascent movement is emerging: Cosmopolitan‘s No Tax on Tampons petition to U.S. state legislators has garnered more than 30,000 signatures.
The tampon tax wars have arisen amidst a wave of global awareness about how lack of access to feminine hygiene—rooted in generations of stigma, taboo and poverty—can compromise health, productivity and dignity. In Afghanistan and Nepal, 3 in 10 girls miss school during their period, a problem highlighted by First Lady Michelle Obama in her Atlantic essay, “Let Girls Learn.” Poor menstrual health is linked to skyrocketing rates of cervical cancer and reproductive infections in India. And here in the U.S., those who are homeless or incarcerated face serious health and safety risks when they can’t access or afford sanitary products. Our current public benefits system often forces women to trade food stamps for tampons.
The United Nations has deemed menstrual hygiene management an economic, public health and human rights issue. Numerous NGOs and social-enterprise initiatives have forged profound, life-changing innovation in the developing world over the past decade.
And the past year has seen no shortage of menstrual media coverage either—from Kiran Gandhi’s bold free-bleeding run of the London Marathon, to public outcry over the MTA’s aversion to period-focused subway ads, to Donald Trump’s sexist sneers about Megyn Kelly’s cycle. Hashtags including #TheHomelessPeriod, #HappyToBleed and #JustATampon blew up on social media. Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti recently deemed this a peak period of menstrual awareness. Cosmo dubbed 2015 The Year of the Period.
So why such misguided menstrual policy? The debate in the U.K. has shined a glaring light on how few and far between are leaders who have any real understanding of the mechanics of menstruation. One Member of Parliament wouldn’t even utter the word “tampon.” MP Stella Creasy, after forcing him to name the cotton wad on the debate floor, proclaimed, “Tampons … have always been considered a luxury. That isn’t by accident, that’s by design of an unequal society, in which the concerns of women are not treated as equally as the concerns of men.”
Managing menstruation is a necessity, not a privilege, and is worthy of a meaningful education and reform agenda. Scrapping sales tax on tampons is a good start. It sends a message about fairness, equity and necessity, and even lifts a small financial burden. But it doesn’t go far enough. For the poorest women, a tax savings of pennies on the dollar isn’t likely going to make a dent in the cycle of poverty.
In the U.S., sound menstrual policy would mandate the inclusion of feminine-hygiene products in Flexible Spending Account allowances (which would require amending the IRS tax code) and as part of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka food stamps) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.
Replicable, innovative models are emerging in cities and states across the country, too. New York City, under the leadership of Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, is laying out a holistic menstrual health agenda, including proposed legislation to provide tampons and pads to low-income students and women in the shelter system; a pilot project kicked off in a Corona, Queens public school this fall. The City of Madison, Wisconsin is poised to do the same in job centers and the county jail and courthouse. And a bill has been introduced in Wisconsin by Rep. Melissa Sargent (D) that would make these products free in all public schools and correctional facilities statewide. More cities and states should follow their lead.
The time is now to demand sound policies that recognize menstrual hygiene for what it is: a matter of public health, gender equality, economic parity and educational opportunity. And a human rights issue that affects anyone who is a woman or who knows a woman—in other words, all of us.
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