The Politics of a Period
Half the world bleeds, has bled, and will bleed three to seven days every month from puberty to menopause, on average 38 years of a person’s life. Depending on where a person lives and what resources are available to them, menstruation can be anything from a mild inconvenience to a financial and emotional burden. This financial burden is more pronounced in certain areas of the world where an additional tax is added onto the price of feminine hygiene products. For many, this is a cost that makes an already expensive item that much more difficult to swing financially.
A recent topic of contention has been the taxation of tampons in the UK under the umbrella of a “luxury item,” a category from which things like exotic meats and edible cake decorations are excluded. Tampons were taxed at a rate of 17.5% from 1973 to 2000, and while it has gone down to 5%, many believe that there is much more to be done. The backlash from women all across the world has manifested itself in the form of parody videos and blood-soaked measures of protest, like going without tampons or pads in public. The problem with the tampon tax comes down to two issues. First, many people cannot easily afford sanitary products during their periods. Second, the UN considers menstrual hygiene a human right akin to clean water and hygienic toilets, a fact that makes its inclusion in a group with non-essential, luxury items ridiculous.
David Cameron has attributed the difficulty removing the value-added tax (VAT) on tampons to “the way tax is regulated and set in Europe.” And this is true: all 28 countries that make up the EU would have to agree in order to have it changed. The EU plans to review taxation policies next year, and there are many reasons why the tampon tax should be one of their first topics of discussion. Between 2010 and 2013, one third of the UK’s population fell below the poverty line at least once. No person should be in a position of having to abstain from sanitary products in order to save money, a trend that food banks across the world recognize is happening. The United States faces this problem as well, considering food stamps do not cover feminine hygiene products. Some resort to selling their food stamps to afford necessities like tampons. The Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Labour Party have brought this to the attention of the government, tabling an amendment to the Finance Bill that would exclude these items from the non-essential, luxury item tax and outright remove the 5% charge. The amendment was rejected in the House of Commons, citing the UK’s inability to make changes without the approval of the 27 other member countries. This doesn’t, though, mean that a change is completely off the table; it must be discussed next year with the entirety of the EU.
Paula Sherriff, the Labour MP who backed the amendment, recognizes that these taxes hit the poorest parts of the population the hardest. “Imagine, for example, being homeless when that time of the month comes,” she says. “Think what it’s like to face a period without even having a bathroom.” Sherriff raises an important point. For homeless people, menstruation presents a persistent nightmare. Homeless shelters often overlook necessary feminine sanitary products, and this leaves those menstruating constantly worried about bleeding through their clothes. While condoms and other health-related items are provided for free at clinics and shelters, the tampon is mysteriously absent.
For many human rights and feminist groups, removing the luxury tax from tampons is only the first step. The goal is to make tampons free and widely available. Walking into any public bathroom, one can find toilet paper, soap, and sometimes seat covers. Planned Parenthood and other health clinics offer condoms and contraceptives for free. Most universities also provide these for their students. Schools and health clinics pay for women to avoid pregnancy but do not follow through financially on that decision: the direct consequence of an unfertilized egg is menstruation, which is then considered the woman’s own financial responsibility. Of course, there are other things to consider in this decision, like the fact that pregnancy is more expensive than a box of tampons every few months. But sex is not mandatory, whereas menstruation for most people with a uterus is a recurring phenomenon. Condoms are important in keeping those participating in sexual activity safe and should be easily accessible, but no one has to use a condom three times a day for three to seven days every month, an average of over 3,000 days of their life. This speaks to the stigmatization of feminine health and hygiene that exists in health education and the government.
Who decided that we get toilet paper for free but not tampons or pads? Governments predominantly run by non-menstruating individuals. Paula Sherriff calls the VAT on tampons a “vagina added tax.” The rhetoric surrounding menstruation is ripe with contradiction. The act is certainly stigmatized, meant mostly to be hidden and even shamed, and yet we have to pay to keep it invisible. There is an entire industry that capitalizes on female pain. They are bleeding us dry. If a person wants to stop their period, one of the few ways is pregnancy, and this is understandably not a viable option for most. You want your period to be less heavy, more punctual? Birth control is an option. But this leaves a person, yet again, in a heavily politicized space. The very act of menstruation is not a choice that can be made. It cannot be abstained from.
Developing countries are hit hardest by lack of availability of hygiene products. For example, most women in Nigeria use rags to remain clean during menstruation. UNICEF estimates that around 10% of girls in Africa miss school while on their periods. These sorts of statistics demonstrate the necessity for action. In a world where young girls are pushed out of school and 73% of women factory workers in Bangladesh miss work for an average of six days a month because of their periods, it’s not easy to imagine the stigmatization of menstruation going away anytime soon. This stigmatization enables health risks associated with poor management of menstrual hygiene to persist and perpetuates the further marginalization of women. The “tampon tax” issue is not just an economic one and is certainly not only present in Western countries, where its backlash is most visible. Beyond the idea of health, cleanliness, and comfort, making menstrual hygiene products free is an issue of human rights. By making tampons free and at the very least tax free, women’s health issues will become increasingly visible, especially in low-income countries and communities. In doing so, an emphasis can be placed on education and create an equality between men’s health issues and women’s health issues. This is what is needed to empower women across the globe and possibly eliminate the conditions that perpetuate poor health management and financing practices in the first place.