Tampon Tax: The Economic Impact of Menstruation

Vital, dense, fluid and bitter is the connective tissue that flows casually once a month for about 40 years of existence from a woman’s body, from menarche (the first menstruation) to menopause, for a total of about 520 menstrual cycles and 12 thousand tampons. In Italy, VAT on sanitary towels was introduced in 1973, reaching 22 percent in recent years, on a par with luxury goods. With the new Meloni government, however, there has been a considerable reduction in the tampon tax for non-compostable sanitary pads from 10 per cent to 5 per cent, together with some essential products for children such as diapers, bottles and baby food.
An incisive symbol of female emancipation, established with the First World War: the sanitary pad is vigorously linked to a percentage. The cellulose bandages used to cover soldiers’ wounds were a fatal intuition for some nurses; that this material had better absorbent capacities than cotton proved to be undisputed. Many women, before that moment, ingeniously used the most unthinkable fabrics to manage the flow: from the softened papyrus of the Egyptians, to wool or cloth in ancient Rome up to pads of gauze, moss or stuffed animal skins in America.

Furthermore, another recent linguistic discovery concerns the term menstruation, introduced only in 1985 with the promotion of a sanitary pad brand in the television series “Friends”. Before then, and still today in many contexts, the most recurring expressions to communicate his presence were “those days”, “my things”, “the period” or even “indisposition” in the justification for the school gymnastics hour . Paradoxically, however, the lack of the term menstruation has been compensated in many cultural-religious environments by disabling expressions to indicate a menstruating woman – niddah (in Hebrew) and nijas (in Islam). Chapaudi, on the other hand, is the so-called menstrual exile, a stigmatizing practice widespread in Nepal, of Hindu origin, which forces menstruating adolescents and women to leave their homes and sleep in huts exposed to bad weather and animal attacks. Although it has been considered illegal since 2005, this practice continues undisturbed.
Words are a fundamental component for understanding how much menstruation, an exclusive phenomenon of the female body, has been hidden by colloquial expressions and associated with concepts such as shame and impurity. In vogue among grandmothers, for example, there was the saying “the marquis has arrived” because it seemed that the marquises were distinguished by some red overcoats as ceremonial dress, or even red jackets. The impurity connected to the phenomenon was, however, evident from the prohibition for women to touch plants and vegetables “in those days” otherwise they would have “gone bad”.

Menstruation is, therefore, a phenomenon that has been stigmatized very easily, impacting on different aspects of women’s lives: health (personal hygiene), education (pain, discomfort and/or lack of personal hygiene products , with serious repercussions on school attendance) and the environment (the silicone menstrual cup, which is also gradually spreading in Italy with one million pieces sold a year, winks at sustainability). No less relevant is the economic aspect, on which the new government in Italy has focused; the so-called “period poverty”, in fact, is a phenomenon that affects many areas of the world.

Sexual Abuse

In Kenya, girls and boys are victims of sexual abuse to be able to have pads while in South Asia, a third of girls do not go to school during the days of menstruation because they lack them. Finally, in India, 4 out of 5 girls do not have access to sanitary products and in rural areas pieces of tissue, but also dust or sand are used to absorb losses, with the risk of greater infections.

These injustices literally make bitter blood and have led to the emergence of numerous forms of activism over the years, enclosed in the current “menstrual activism”. By focusing on education and greater awareness and information on the subject, this form of activism aims at a broad change at a social level. An example were some visual changes in the perception of menstruation with the introduction of blood-colored sanitary pads in some brands instead of the sweetened blue liquid or the participation in the London marathon (2015) of the athlete Kiran Gandhi and his choice iconic of not wearing a sanitary pad while having menstruation.

The tampon tax can be considered a child symptom of this imbalance. Since 2007, across the European Union, countries have been free to minimize VAT on sanitary towels and feminine hygiene products, but many seem to ignore this, such as Hungary (27 percent), closely followed by Croatia, Denmark , Sweden, Finland and Greece with tax rates between 24 per cent and 25 per cent.

Many Countries Have Also Gone Against The Tide

On the contrary, however, many countries have also gone against the tide: between 2019 and 2020 Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania reduced the tampon tax up to 5 percent, as did Germany which lowered the VAT since 19 percent to 7 percent, and Luxembourg to 3 percent. Furthermore, France lowered the tampon tax to 5.5 per cent in 2015, while Cyprus has seen the same drop to 5 per cent since 2018. Finally, the tax has been completely abolished in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Instead, Scotland took a step further with Labor Monica Lennon (2020) and the approval of the Period Products Bill, a law that guarantees free access to menstrual products in public buildings, such as schools, universities and colleges.

On the Italian side, the reduction of VAT on sanitary towels has been a much discussed topic since 2016 starting from the slogan “the period is not a luxury”. In continuity, that same year, four deputies from the Possibile party had presented a proposal to the Chamber to reduce taxation to 4 per cent, that envisaged for basic necessities. The proposal was rejected to the sound of sexist jokes, but five years later it led to the birth of a heterogeneous movement – including the “Onde Rosa” association – which pushed for the abolition of the tampon tax with frequent petitions. Without too many concrete results, hostility towards this taxation continued; in 2019 there was a failed attempt by the president of the Chamber Laura Boldrini for its reduction. We will have to wait for the Draghi government’s budget law (2022) for a lowering of the VAT on non-compostable sanitary pads to 10 percent – considering that for essential goods it stands at 4 percent.

An undeniable step forward is the most recent one of the government chaired by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Even if it were a “pinkwashing” operation to give rise to the discontent of a slice of the female population, this move would have an important socio-cultural impact on society, counter balancing an aspect of the gender gap in a symbolic way. It is not enough to settle for small goals, but at the same time it must be recognized that a female-led government has brought home a much-discussed request in recent years, amidst controversial refusals and too weak attempts by the Democratic Party.

With VAT at 22 percent, the average cost of a woman to get sanitary pads was around 70 euros a year. With VAT at 10 percent it has dropped to 63 euros and with the move of the new government it will be around 60 euros. There is no mention of stratospheric figures, but underneath there is a fundamental symbolic value similar to that of language; automatisms can be gradually changed and the socio-economic weight of some concepts rethought like a bird’s wing, from VAT to the controversial binarism which, by hiding itself excessively, makes the need for difference invisible.

This article id originally published on triesteallnews.it