The 5% VAT that is added onto all sanitary items has been causing controversy for weeks now. HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) categorise these products as ‘non-essential’, ‘luxury’ items, whereas condoms, dental dams, and the pill are all, quite rightly, available on the NHS; nobody should have to worry about not being able to afford a simple hygienic need. Anyone who has ever had a period will tell you, to go about your day without the necessary products required is stressful, embarrassing and downright impossible. To call sanitary products anything other than essential is an insult to anyone dealing with menstruation.
There has been a whole range of protests about this ridiculous tax, from comedians’ rants, memes and tweets, all the way to the extreme protest of two women who ‘free bled’ outside the Houses of Parliament. A petition calling for the end of the tampon tax has received over 125,000 signatures as of 10 November 2015. And, comedian Russell Howard’s sketch rant about the tax went viral, being liked by over 120,000 people on Facebook, shared more than 118,000 times and viewed over seven million times. More and more people seem to be joining the attack on the tax. The twitter hashtag, #tampontax, has led to a whole wave of hilarious tweets such as one woman’s: ‘IF YOU CAN AFFORD TO GIVE BOYS FREE CONDOMS YOU CAN AFFORD TO GIVE GIRLS FREE TAMPONS, MENSTRUATION IS A LOT HARDER TO REFRAIN FROM THAN SEX #tampontax’.
Most other health products are tax-free. Items such as nappies, the contraceptive pill, condoms, incontinence tablets, and other necessities are provided by our NHS. Why should sanitary products be taxed when most other hygiene products are not? It feels as if we’re being targeted for monetary gain, given no alternative other than to submit and to carry on purchasing the products that we require.
The list of items that are considered to be ‘essential goods’ by the European Commission does leave many wondering what Parliament think we do with our lives. For the fussy eater who only eats exotic meats; the avid cake decorator; the dedicated zoo goer; the helicopter owner; the bingo enthusiast or the supreme flapjack supporter, life is great, as all of these items are considered ‘essential’. But for the average woman who is biologically contracted to experience menstruation, the challenge continues. While the zoo is amazing, and helicopters look like great fun, and cake is a product of divine intervention, these items are not what I would consider ‘essential’. For something to be essential it should be a fundamental contributor to the survival and success of a person’s day-to-day life. Realistically, what is more detrimental to our daily lives, edible cake decorations or sanitary products?
The word ‘luxury’ implies that it is something desirable, something we are treating ourselves to. It suggests something we want, but do not need. By that logic, HMRC and Parliament are suggesting that sanitary products are not imperative and that they’re not a totally and completely necessary way to deal with menstruation. The graphic campaign of the two women who, as previously mentioned, ‘free bled’ outside the Houses of Parliament showed just how ‘essential’ sanitary products are, as the participants received abuse all day for being ‘distasteful and disgusting’.
However, are we complaining to the wrong people?
The tax has been seriously reduced from a staggering 17.5% in 1973 to just 5% in 2000 after Labour MP, Dawn Primarolo fought for the reduction of what she described as a ‘necessity’. The issue has been brought back into the media after the general election campaign, during which UKip declared that they would end the tax if we were to abandon the EU. As it stands, the EU does not allow zero rates on sanitary products and all VAT is governed by EU law. The UK’s 5% reduced VAT is the lowest rate possible under EU VAT law.
If you take a look at the rest of the world, we have little to complain about in comparison. Slovakia for example still pay the basic goods rate of 20% VAT for their sanitary products. Slovakian director of the film The Moon Inside You, Diana Fabianova, told the BBC: ‘there are no plans to change the law. When the sexual revolution and feminism was happening in the West, we had a communist regime. And you can still feel that we skipped these important changes. There is no interest from political sides to stand up for these issues.’
Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne has said that the tax cannot be scrapped due to EU law, however he now claims that the £15 million raised from the VAT will be flooded into women’s charities, such as domestic abuse refuges. There have been mixed reviews concerning this statement. Some women say that banding together empowers women and gives a sense of community solidarity. Others are claiming that it’s unfair for women to be singularly subjected to paying for this help, as it suggests that it’s a ‘woman’s duty’ alone to fund these imperative services for other women.
So, whilst the debate on tampon tax continues to rage, progress is being made. In California politicians Cristina Garcia (Democrat) and Ling Ling Chang (Republican), started the 2016 state legislative session by discussing the tax on women’s sanitary products. They introduced a Bill that would result in female hygiene products being classified a medical necessity. Sanitary products would be kept alongside prescription medication, and excused from taxation. Garcia stated in a press release, ‘Basically, we are being taxed for being women. This is a step in the right direction to fix this gender injustice. Women have no choice but to buy these products…’ In Canada and Australia recent petitions have led to massive government support. Kellie Leitch, Canada’s Minister for the Status of Women tweeted that the Canadian government would also support the motion. This was received with great appreciation and one person replied: ‘Thank you- on behalf of 72,000 menstruators!’