‘Non-essential, luxury items’: The Tampon Tax

The issue of tampons and other sanitary products being taxed is, admittedly, not the most pressing ‘feminist’ matter considering everything that happens in the world simply because we are women.

The tampon tax is not as important as the high levels of gender-based violence including rape and murder across the world – where a woman is murdered every thirteen hours[i] in Honduras or a woman serving in the US military is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire[ii].

But it is important.

The Telegraph’s Hartley-Brewer – “The campaign to end VAT on tampons is one of the silliest the sisterhood has ever mounted” manages to reinforce some of the most harmful stereotypes of feminists out there. Even the use of the word “silliness” undermines the legitimacy of campaigners’ arguments only serving as a reminder that concerns raised by women can be dismissed with a wave of a hand as simply being ‘silly’ (as they historically have been).

The tax on sanitary products is an example of an extra cost that only women bear. Personally, I object to these products being labelled as ‘non-essential, luxury’ items – there is nothing luxurious about them. And I do not know a single woman who would disagree with me.

The Guardian’s columnist Jessica Valenti’s “Case for Free Tampons”[iii] outlines the state of feminine hygiene around the world. Quite frankly, it is brutally honest and reminds us – as ‘Western’ women quite how lucky we are.

Valenti quotes Gloria Steinem’s suggestion that “if men got periods, they ‘would brag about how long and how much’….And that sanitary supplies would be ‘federally funded and free’.” Admittedly, in the depths of frustration I have uttered similar ideas.

The ‘Tampon Tax’ is one topic that I cannot blame on Cameron’s government. The current rate of 5% is the lowest tax that the UK can implement. Due to EU regulations states cannot implement 0% tax rates unless they were in place prior to joining the EU. In order to reduce the tax to 0% Britain would have to renegotiate and have unanimous agreement with all 27 other member states.

Social media of course had a lot to say on this matter.

One highlight of the Commons’ debate (October 2015) was the ludicrous items considered to be essential and therefore subject to 0% tax. Stella Creasy MP outlined in her ‘joke-filled rant’[iv] that “Jaffa Cakes…. razors…. pitta bread [are] zero-rated” as she asked “what is the kebab without a good pitta bread around it? Is it a necessity?”. She manages to highlight items so unlikely to be considered essential yet are, whilst delivering it in such a way that is light-hearted and amusing without negating the seriousness of the issue; this has lead to snippets of her speech being shared online thousands of times. Furthermore, Creasy (some may consider her the star of this debate) forced veteran MP Bill Cash to actually utter the word of ‘tampon’, which was met with raucous cheers. As Creasy tweeted late that night: “Ah we managed to get Bill Cash to say tampon on the record – who says progress isn’t possible! #TamponTax”.

Not only did social media love this lively debate but users frequently asked why items including razors, nappies, Jaffa Cakes, edible sugar decorations and exotic meats such as Crocodile and Kangaroo were subject to the 0% tax rate meant for essential items compared to the 5% that sanitary products face.

There are no male-only tax items! Despite Twitter users’ best attempts – suggesting Clearasil, rear-view mirrors, shaving cream and jock straps they failed to find any male-only taxed items. There are none.

Another user in response to the challenge to name one male-only taxed product decided that it was appropriate to respond “Q for you. Ratio of women / men who died front line WWII?” As if that is relevant to the ‘tampon tax’ conversation! Finally, and perhaps equally horrifying and amusing, Twitter users remembered one user who decided that trousers were a man-only taxed item.

The mind boggles.

But to go back to the root of the matter, I think Stella Creasy best sums it up in her speech in the House of Commons “Tampons and sanitary towels…. have always been considered a luxury. That isn’t by accident, that’s by design of an unequal society, in which the concerns of women are not treated as equally as the concerns of men.”[v]

References / Bibliography:




















[i] http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b06mvwhb/stacey-dooley-investigates-series-7-2-worlds-worst-place-to-be-a-woman

[ii] https://globalgenderjustice.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/rape-in-the-us-military/

[iii] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/11/free-tampons-cost-feminine-hygiene-products

[iv] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/10/27/stella-creasy-perfectly-sums-up-why-tampons-are-not-luxury-items_n_8399402.html

[v] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/10/27/stella-creasy-perfectly-sums-up-why-tampons-are-not-luxury-items_n_8399402.html


About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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