Call it what you will – periods, that time of the month, the curse – menstruation is a fact of life for roughly half of the world’s population. The “tampon tax”, aka the surcharge on hygiene products such as pads and tampons, has been challenged in Australia and Canada, leading to further demonstrations via online petitions in Britain, France and Italy. Will we finally see the levy on an uncontrollable biological process being removed once and for all in Europe as well?

It all began earlier this year with Australia making headlines when activists confronted treasurer Joe Hockey and made him speak to the state about removing the tax; cue cheers and praise for Australia from many Europeans. Yet it was the Australian petition, Stop taxing my period!, which attracted over 90,000 signatures, that truly challenged the politicians. A similar petition in Canada was launched and managed to get over 70, 000 signatures. This was a major factor in the country’s decision to completely scrap the tampon tax in May; from 1 July, the irritating five percent “Goods and Services” tax will no longer be levied. Now there is a debate in parts of Europe about whether taxation on sanitary products should be scrapped here as well –but why is this even up for debate?

Living in London myself, I do not think that fact that the UK applies a reduced rate of VAT to the supply of sanitary product is enough. And that is not only because of the sickening fact that the British state earns money on women’s reproductive cycles. 

Tampons are effectively being viewed as luxury items. Surely this is evidence of latent sexism that should not sit well with modern Europe?  One only has to cast a glance at the petition started by Australian student Subeta Vimalarajah; she made an important point by highlighting the fact that other hygiene products like lubricants, condoms, sunscreen and nicotine patches are completely tax-free because they are classed as essential health goods.

In the UK, however, tampons are categorised as non-essential luxury goods by the British government – a fact that is making people furious (this isn’t of course purely a “women’s issue”; members of the transgender community may not self-identify as women, but may still menstruate). And inevitably the surcharge will be hitting low-income households the hardest as making every-day life work on a limited budget can be a real challenge when you have to buy expensive health items every month.

What about Scandinavia, which is supposed to be Europe’s forward-thinking utopia, where gender equality is at its best? The countries in the far North are excellent on hospital services and maternity leave, but the tampon tax has not ruffled any feathers there.

Of course, some people have argued that their razor blades, lotions and shaving creams are even more expensive and just as essential health items as a small pack of tampons. And it is a valid point; those products should probably not be viewed as luxury goods either. However, in Britain men’s razors are actually considered to be essentials for tax purposes, making the system not just a matter of price, but a form of discrimination. What’s more, staying unshaven for a few days compared to bleeding from one’s uterus for a week are very different matters.  Having a beard or hairy legs is unlikely to impede on day-to-day activities in the same way that an unmanaged period does.

As we have no control over this biological process, it is not right that we have to pay at all to the government for the privilege. Canada has finally realised this – but why is this so hard to grasp for Europe? What about Scandinavia, which is supposed to be Europe’s forward-thinking utopia, where gender equality is at its best? The countries in the far North are excellent on hospital services and maternity leave, but the tampon tax has not ruffled any feathers there.  Why are none of the Nordic countries following Canada’s example? 

It is strange that even in this century, we have to struggle so much to be heard in politics. In fact, without the power of the internet and social media the tampon tax issue would probably not have raised much debate at all. Sharing on Twitter, Facebook and online newspapers, have become major factors in determining the success of grassroots campaigns, and even then, it can still be a long struggle.

In this case, the matter is a lot trickier than convincing a few politicians. As David Cameron has pointed out, a decision to get rid of the tax is likely to need EU-wide agreement; all of the 28 member states would have to agree for an item to be untaxed. The five percent tax levy is the lowest option under EU law. For this reason, the petitions aim to secure the support of the governments in their own countries first before taking it further to the European Parliament. As a Norwegian myself, I am especially irritated that even though Norway is not a part of the EU, the country has  have not followed Canada’s example and removed the tampon tax.

At the same time, though, it is important not to forget the people in the developing world for whom sanitary products truly are a luxury. The decision between using old towels, rags or worse to stop the monthly flow is a far more common dilemma there than what brand of tampons to buy. While Europeans mainly fight for the tampon tax to be scrapped as a matter of equality, the argument that tampons and pads are essential health items is particularly salient in poorer countries. 

We can only hope that as Britain, France and Italy are now pondering this issue, other countries will soon follow suit – next stop Brussels!

Cover photo: Aaron Fulkerson (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0 

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    Katarina Poensgen is a BA Journalism student at City University London and a freelance writer. She is Norwegian and loves to write political pieces, satirical articles, features and to report on Eastern European. You can follow her on Twitter @KatBlaablomst and read other articles she has written in previous editions of E&M.

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