Economics and finance, Social policy, Health, Arts, culture & society | Australia

8 September 2016

Australia’s taxation system applies a goods and services tax to disposable sanitary products, sparking a fierce debate around fairness, Donna Stolzenberg writes.

The so-called ‘tampon tax’ is a topic of contention, dividing mostly the owners and operators of a uterus, against those who have never had the ‘luxury’ of having one. Some wading into the foray insist that if you don’t fall into the former camp then you have no say in the debate. I disagree. There are many sans-uterine folk who have an interest in the outcome of this debate. After all, although they might not be using the tampons, they may well be paying for them: fathers, husbands, significant male others, and those who no longer or never had a uterus but are purchasing sanitary items for others who do.

The two questions at the heart of this debate are whether using a disposable sanitary product such as a tampon or pad during menses is a luxury, and whether the debate is a women’s rights issue or a societal issue.

The GST is a tax applied to non-essential items. By applying it to disposable sanitary products it is implied that sanitary items are non-essential. This, of course, is nonsense – adequate and effective menstrual management is essential. So why the GST? Some politicians have argued that without the agreement of all states and territories the tampon tax is impossible to remove. However, as an ABC Fact Check has found, although it may be difficult, it’s not an insurmountable task.

So, we know we can remove it. The question then is, why aren’t we doing so?

Periods (or menses, menstruation) cause shedding of the uterus for an average of five days. No female has control over this function without resorting to chemical, medical or surgical means. Being biological also means it’s a natural process, something women are meant to do.

Although this may seem an extraordinarily obvious point to make, menstrual cycles need to be managed so that women can go about their daily lives with minimum disruption while this biological process runs its uncontrollable course. The best way to do this is to use adequate sanitary protection, such as a tampon or pad. Without these items, menstruation becomes a barrier to carrying out even the most basic functions of normal daily life. Should the goods used during the care and management of this biological process be subject to a luxury tax? The answer is an emphatic no. Defining sanitary items as a luxury, or non-essential, implies the biological process of menses is luxurious or that menstruating is something people choose to do.

Some argue there are other, less luxurious yet just as efficient and practical ways to manage menses such as washable reusable products. While some women do opt for reusable products they aren’t for everyone. Used pads need adequate storage until they can be laundered. Women work and travel. Where are they to store their used pads while on a five-day work conference?

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And what of women experiencing homelessness? Where are their pads being laundered and dried? Many of these women have nowhere to store their possessions. Are they expected to carry the used yet unwashed and now foul smelling pads with them until an affordable laundry service happens by?

There are some fantastic cloth reusable pads around these days however you’re still hit with the GST in the cost of making them. Sewing machine, material, cotton, sale on the product: all subject to GST. Whichever way you turn, there is no escape.

So is the tampon tax a women’s rights or a societal issue? It’s both. Women are legally afforded equal rights as men, just not the same biological support and as a society we grow and strengthen when women are given equal rights and support. Women are being unfairly taxed by a government that has an obligation to support all members of society.

Women have a right to access adequate sanitary items for a biological process they have no control over, however, the flow on effects of inadequate menstrual management have a larger impact on society as a whole than we might think at first glance. If we were to suddenly remove disposable sanitary items our economy wouldn’t collapse, however, we would see an increase in personal leave taken during menses and a decrease in the number of women applying for promotions or positions that require travel or long stays away from home. This would lead to more women in lower paying positions retiring with less superannuation. Women retiring with little or no superannuation is already a recognised problem. As obscure as it sounds, expecting women to use homemade reusable pads to avoid paying tax on ‘luxurious’ tampons means menstruation can have a direct effect on how much superannuation they retire with. Women in lower paying jobs have less disposable income, which affects every aspect of life, from choices such as schooling for children, private medical care, where they live, to their own independence.

Former Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey wrote in a letter to state and territory treasurers that removing the GST on tampons would cost $120 million over four years and that the country can’t afford it. Yet New York City, Chicago, and France have all removed the tax on sanitary items with no detrimental effect on their economies to date.

People who menstruate have a right to choose what items suit their personal menstrual management needs. To imply that women should go back to homemade products if they don’t want to pay the GST on disposable ones is unfair. In this era, gender inequality around personal hygiene still runs rampant. The comparison between men shaving their facial hair and a woman managing her period highlights the point. We don’t expect men to shave using nothing more than a cut-throat blade in a barber chair, so we should not expect women to be satisfied using reusable sanitary items either.

Women have a right to their choice of menstrual management products, including hygienic and disposable options. Women also have a right to not be taxed on a biological process they have no control over.

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Stolzenberg, Donna. 2016. "Tackling The ‘Tampon Tax’ - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.