Menstruation is not a choice. Proper hygiene is every menstruator’s right. Across the world, 1.8 billion menstruate monthly. Yet millions of these girls, women, transgender men, and non-binary people face a lack of basic menstrual services, stemming from both poverty and the stigma around menstruation.
Although ensuring that everyone has access to menstrual products should be a matter of public health, many people are forced to resort to unsafe and unhygienic methods of managing their periods. Periods are one of the primary reasons why girls drop out of school in India. Many others are forced to stay at home solely because they do not have the means to handle menstruation hygienically. Some women have no choice but to use cloth or rags which, if not clean, can increase the risk of infections. It is every menstruator’s inherent right to have access to clean and safe products. Therefore, it is unreasonable to tax them on such goods.
The tampon tax is an indirect tax imposed on menstrual products. This is often regarded as a sexist tax since other necessities and health items like prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs are tax exempt. In fact, there are places around the world where admissions to rodeos and college athletic events are untaxed, while tampons are not. It is argued to rightfully declare menstrual products as an essential commodity, abolish the tax on them, and introduce a price ceiling to ensure that they are accessible to low-income households. However, not all minds are on the same page about this notion.
For several countries, exempting menstrual products from being taxed results in reduced public revenue collection. Hungary and Sweden impose the maximum tax — at 27% and 25% respectively — on sanitary products, making them expensive for most consumers. In many US states cutting the tampon tax is estimated to eliminate anywhere from 10-60 million dollars in revenue per year. Eliminating this tax would result in having to increase tax rates on other products to balance out that loss. In retrospect, however, states like Alabama and Texas allow you to buy a Snickers bar tax-free from a vending machine but deem menstrual products as unessential.
India, on the other hand, is one of the few countries that, as of 2018, has scrapped its tampon tax. India has a population of more than 355 million menstruating people, 88% of whom use unsafe sanitary products to manage their periods due to a lack of awareness and financial instability. The 12% tax had made products even more inaccessible in a country where most menstruators already do not have access to items like sanitary pads. Before 2018, under the GST, sanitary pads were not considered a tax-free essential item, making them unaffordable to over 70% of menstruators. After a year of campaigning and lobbying against the levy, India altered its tax system to classify menstrual products as “essential” and made them entirely tax-free. Other countries like Kenya, Canada, Australia, and Nigeria have done the same.
Making sanitary products more accessible goes beyond tax cuts. Scotland recently became the first country in the world to ensure that tampons and pads are free for all those who need them. Nepal began distributing free menstrual products in schools across the country in 2017. This was part of their attempt to reduce school absenteeism caused by the inability to manage periods.
Making menstrual products affordable is a part of the fight for gender equality as it pushes people to recognise menstruation as a biological process that does not need to be stigmatised and should not hinder someone’s education, career, or future.
Globally, more women than men live in poverty as a result of sexism across society limiting them in employment opportunities, caregiving support, education, etc. The gender wage gap, the gender wealth gap, occupation segregation into low paying jobs, domestic violence, and inadequate public support all factor into this. There is an unfair financial burden on women who get paid less than men in comparable positions. Women and girls already struggle to access the resources to manage their periods and the tampon tax further hardens this challenge. It forces menstruators to either resort to less safe and less hygienic means of managing their menstruation or forces them to live at a constant financial disadvantage. In Kenya, for example, a study conducted by FSG concluded that relatively poorer girls and women may turn to prostitution to afford pads.
Providing affordable menstrual hygiene products is a step in the right direction, but not enough to end period poverty. In order to truly achieve this aim, there has to be a widespread advocation of education, increased availability of adequate water and sanitation facilities, and addressal of harmful gender norms. It is all our responsibilities to make our voices heard and ensure that lawmakers acknowledge menstrual products as essential items. This will bring us one step closer to bridging the gap between the opportunities received by the different genders.
Organisations all around the world are consistently fighting to make products more affordable. The organisation Period Equity launched the Tax-Free Period campaign to urge US states to eliminate the tampon tax as soon as possible. Companies like Aakar Innovations and the Muruganantham Jayshree Industries have devised ways to reduce the production costs of these products and extend these products to Self Help Groups (SHGs). These groups enable menstruators to purchase their own pad making machine, establish a warrant, and continue to produce affordable pads.
A tax imposed on menstrual products is not just a tax on a product. It is essentially a tax on people solely because of their biological need to menstruate.
Article by Parnika Gupta from the REDefine Team
Featured Artwork by Prathna Anand
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