Julia Lee | contributor
Media uproar ensued after an October Parliamentary debate regarding the removal of the value-added tax, or VAT, more popularly known as the luxury tax on menstrual products in the United Kingdom.
A luxury tax is exactly what it sounds like: a tax on luxury goods, or products not considered essential. You would think that things people purchase for the purposes of enjoyment, like lottery tickets, bingo games and helicopters, would be taxed as such rather than items that fulfill basic needs. However they are all exempt from the same tax that tampons and other sanitary products used during menstruation are not. Sanitary products are considered to be “non-essential” by the European Commision, and it’s worth noting that the majority of the people responsible for turning this around are men.
Attempts to get rid of the five percent VAT were led by Labour MP Paula Sherriff who, during the debate, called it “absurd” that such products are not only taxed as luxuries, but they are not treated as a public service or medical provision by the European Union, as well. In response, Treasury Minister David Gauke promised that the Treasury would “raise the issue” with other EU member states and the European Commission.
Of course, words rarely speak nearly as loud as actions do, and some activists have decided that they need more than the uneasy response and uncertain outcome they were given. A woman by the name of Laura Coryton started a petition on Change.org titled “Stop taxing periods. Period.” with the aims of ensuring the removal of the tax. It describes the use and tax of sanitary products as a “double-edged sword that cuts women on both sides” and has garnered 271,807 supporters of its aimed 300,000. While the petition doesn’t have the power to cause a direct change in the tax practice, it increases awareness and discussion of the tax.
Menstruation is an undeniably unpleasant experience, but also an unavoidable one for most women. I am privileged in the sense that I have access to menstrual products in the first place. What speaks volumes (more than my short-lived embarrassment and slight discomfort) is the fact that others aren’t so lucky: 2,134 British women aged 18 to 45 who currently have regular periods were polled as part of the research recently done to determine how much people spend on having periods, according to The Huffington Post UK. Over 77 percent reported having periods lasting five days or more and having to budget money monthly for various things including sanitary products, new underwear, pain relief, chocolate, other forms of comfort food and toiletries. The total came out to a cost of $521.15 annually, and, with the average woman menstruating 450 times in a lifetime, the total cost of periods during a female’s lifetime was calculated to be £18,450, or $19,763.82. Sanitary products themselves costing $13.77 per month – the total of that comes out to $6,196.61 for a lifetime. With tax, that adds up to an extra $309.83 spent.
Additionally, Vice News reported a scarcity in tampons in Argentina due to restrictions made on imports of certain goods earlier this year. This forces those who seek them out to use pads instead, which 27-year-old resident of Buenos Aires Catalina Moclov referred to as “more uncomfortable and unhygienic”. This limited access to tampons is clearly harmful to their health and emphasizes the shame behind using them as well as the idea that they aren’t necessary. Menstrual products are viewed as nonessential but are in fact, quite the opposite. Those who possess a need for these products couldn’t imagine being without them. Unfortunately, that possibility is a reality for so many.
Menstruation is a basic, monthly, biological process characteristic of most people with a uterus. It is, by no means, a choice – and there’s no denying that there’s a stigma that surrounds it. People who menstruate are so often berated for and discouraged from even mentioning their periods, a bodily process they have zero control over. When used around cis men, the very word almost always results in a physical cringe, a shudder, a “can you not talk about this right now?” I think back to high school when my friends and I would whisper to each other by our lockers as we tried to devise the most discreet way possible to pass on a pad so nobody would see. What was best? Shoving it in a backpack? Up the sleeve? I’ll never forget the embarrassment I felt when, during one transaction, I tried to slip a tampon to my friend when it flew across the hallway – nor will the image of a boy’s face when he witnessed what had just happened fade from my memory.
On top of the stigma against periods that makes the process of buying menstrual products difficult and embarrassing, a tax makes these products harder to afford in the first place. It implies that this process most people with vaginas go through doesn’t matter, or that it’s not really that important – that it’s extra. While the discussion over the removal of the European tax is supposedly in the works, exactly when a decision about it will be made is unknown. Whether its outcome will be a favorable one is even more uncertain, but it’s time for it to be a thing of the past.
*Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Julia is a first-year student intending to major in Social Work and minor in Creative Writing. She feels really lucky to be a part of such a progressive publication like The Fourth Wave and to go to a university that offers so many resources and opportunities to its students.
Check out more from December 2015 issue here.