Social policy, Health, Arts, culture & society | The World

28 October 2016

Menstrual products are an absolute necessity for full and equal participation in society and the arguments to tax them don’t stack up, Claudia Geist and Lea Hunter write.

With some luck young girls will learn about menstruation before they experience it themselves. They will learn about the natural process that will occur when the lining built up in the uterus is shed and bleeding occurs. Most likely this will include a discussion of how to manage this natural process, such as how to affix a sanitary napkin to the inside of one’s underwear. Girls might also learn how tampons work and explore their ability to absorb liquid by holding them under a running faucet. It’s unlikely, however, that as comprehensive as this talk might be, it will include a discussion of how the state profits from a woman’s need to manage her period.

This profiting from periods is a problem in countless nations around the world. Two examples, one from each of our home countries, demonstrates this point. In the US the state of Utah collects 6.85 per cent in sales tax (the rate set for Salt Lake City, which varies widely across and within states) on every tampon, every pad, or every menstrual cup sold because these products are considered by the local government to be a luxury item. Looking to Europe, we find that Germany charges a 19 per cent Value Added Tax (VAT) for feminine hygiene products, which do not qualify for the reduced VAT rate of 7 per cent.

We both grew up in relatively privileged situations, so this additional cost never prevented our access to menstrual hygiene products. But menstruators all over the world are statistically more likely to be economically disadvantaged than their non-menstruating male counterparts. In many parts of the world, women won’t even receive basic information about reproduction and bodily functions, and even more lack access to the products necessary to ensure proper menstrual hygiene.  All over the world women are subject to reproductive diseases, higher rates of cervical cancer, and infection because of poor menstrual hygiene. When menstruators cannot access the products they need they miss school and work creating personal, and on a larger scale, national economic disadvantage.

More on this: Tackling the ‘tampon tax’: A women’s rights or societal issue?

We should by now be beyond the question of whether or not this constitutes a women’s rights issue. It is a matter of public health that menstruators have access to hygiene products. No one wants half the population bleeding all over the place. Menstrual products are an absolute necessity for full and equal participation in society. The idea that our governments are generating tax revenue off of people who are already at an economic and social disadvantage around the world is frustrating.

We do not suggest that our local and state governments should not levy sales taxes, but menstrual hygiene products should be included with the exemptions granted on any other products. Most sales tax systems tax all goods and services at one rate and then specify certain “necessary” goods at a reduced or exempted rate. We see no plausible argument for menstrual hygiene products not being deemed necessary under this system. In fact, the only arguments we have really seen from those who oppose legislation to provide such exemptions, like the bills that just passed in New York and Illinois, are that it would impact tax revenue. But if you are going exempt other things, from prescription drugs to groceries, which also have an impact on revenues, that reasoning falls over because the justification for exempting those products is no more significant than for menstrual hygiene products. Although the amounts are fairly small, they accumulate over a woman’s lifetime, and violate the principle of not unduly limiting access to necessary goods.

The issue of taxing menstrual hygiene products is particularly striking for two reasons – no other product is so gendered and so necessary. Menstruation is a biological imperative for a large portion of the population. Many products are gendered; some arbitrarily like clothes and razors, others, such as bras or and a jock strap, for anatomical reasons. Menstrual hygiene products are similarly gendered in that they are only used by women and other people who experience a menstrual cycle, including those who are outside of the gender binary and some trans men. The difference between menstrual hygiene products and other gendered products is that they are a necessity. It is incredibly difficult to function in society without some means of managing menstruation whether that be through a tampon, a pad, a reusable menstrual cup, or other product.

Back in the 1970s, Gloria Steinem wrote an article claiming that if men could menstruate all sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free, and she’s probably right. Menstruators have become so accustomed to hiding all evidence of their periods that our lawmakers, who are predominantly men, don’t even realise the extent of the, perhaps unintentional, discrimination they inflict.

The continued existence of tax policies which do not recognise the necessity of menstrual hygiene products is a direct consequence of the absence of gender diversity in positions of power. But there are growing movements all over the world bringing attention to this issue. It is time for our lawmakers to recognise the necessity of menstrual hygiene products and stop treating tampons like a luxury.

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Geist, Claudia and Lea Hunter. 2016. "A Taxable Luxury? - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.