What do razors, edible sugar flowers and kangaroo meat have in common? They are all taxed as essential products. Tampons and sanitary pads, on the other hand, are classed as “non-essential, luxury” items.
“Non-essential”. So what would happen if women did without? One of two things: they could stay at home and bleed unobtrusively into their toilet bowls, or continue about their daily lives, staining clothes and carpets and disturbing any olfactory systems in range.
When the tennis player Heather Watson said last month that she lost at the Australian Open partly due to dizziness and nausea from “girl things”, the furore that followed showed that by mentioning her period she was doing something very unusual or even shocking. Yet periods often cause excruciating stomach cramps, aching legs and back, mood swings and headaches; periods can be a major pain.
The topic of tampon tax is beginning to reach national consciousness after Laura Coryton, a 21-year-old student at Goldsmith’s University, started a petition to scrap tampon tax, which has had nearly 140,000 signatures. Cameron was asked last week if he would remove the tax, to which he responded that it was very difficult to change the tax within the framework of European Union laws: “I’ll have to go away and have a look and come back to you.” This doesn’t sound promising.
Designating tampons as luxury taxable products implies an institutionalised misogyny in which women’s needs are routinely dismissed. Tampons form a keystone of female independence: they allow us the freedom to gain an education and earn a living, instead of staying at home – which is what many women did in the past and still do in some cultures.
In India, girls stay at home for an average of 50 days of school a year because of their periods. Some 88 per cent of menstruating women do not use sanitary protection. Many of these women use unsanitary alternatives such as newspapers, ashes and dried leaves, and have a 70% higher incidence of reproductive tract infections. But we are not in India and the vast majority of British girls are not missing school because of about 11p extra in tax per pack.
Campaigners got the tax lowered from 17.5% to 5% in 2000, to align with the EU minimum for non-essential products. It is not that we should be arguing to avoid paying taxes while the government is cutting disability and child benefits. It is the principle that matters. Sanitary products are health care, and should be designated as such.
I had mixed feelings about writing this article, it not being a subject everyone would air in public. To do so risks attracting the attention of marauding misogynists. But to avoid the subject would be to remain complicit in maintaining the taboo.
American feminist Gloria Steinem said in 1986 that if men had periods instead of women, a period would be the “envied beginning of manhood” and that there would be “gifts, religious ceremonies”. But men don’t. They have never been sent out of the kitchen for fear of tainting the cutlery; had to sleep in a separate bed; been spurned from their homes; made others impure by their touch; been banned from the tops of mountains; polluted the sacredness of temples; been hung upside down; lain writhing in pain while sucking a lemon; sat out of swimming lessons; ruined dozens of knickers; leaked through their clothes when there’s nowhere to hide; or spent unexplained hours in someone else’s bathroom secretly washing their underwear. If they had, they would realise that having a convenient sanitary product to keep themselves clean is not a luxury, it’s essential.