Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak MP announced during his budget that tampon tax will end by January 2021. Generations of campaigners have called for this tax to be axed since its introduction in 1973. Finally, they’re being listened to. Here’s why the end of tampon tax is so important and how it will help to challenge the period taboo at large.
Some surprising absurdities riddle our tax system. While certain ‘essential’ items escape Value Added Tax (VAT) altogether by virtue of their necessity, others are subject to a comparatively luxurious 5% tax rate. Tax-free, essential items include maintaining our private helicopters, crocodile meat and playing bingo. Meanwhile, all period products, including tampons, period pads, menstrual cups and all other reusable products, are considered luxurious enough to warrant a 5% VAT rate.
I came across this tax in 2014 and decided to start a petition to end what appeared to be a deeply sexist tax that disproportionately impacted women and people in poverty. 6 years and 395,000 signatures later, and tampon tax is finally being axed.
The end of tampon tax matters for many reasons. Firstly, it matters because it represents a symptom of sexism and more specifically, that women often aren’t fairly represented politically or on decision making boards. In 1973, when tampon tax was introduced, a mere 4.1% of MPs were female, none of whom were involved with the Treasury. Today, this number has increased to 34% but we are still a long way from equal representation and have yet to have a single female Chancellor. In 2015, Obama supported my tampon tax campaign. He said that tampon tax simply wouldn’t exist if women were properly represented in political institutions. He was the first major political leader to connect tampon tax as a sexist policy with female political underrepresentation. So axing tampon tax isn’t just about decreasing period prices. It’s about injecting a female-focused narrative into an androcentric sphere and pressuring a male-dominated parliament and Treasury into considering that women’s rights are human rights and should be taken into account.
Secondly, the end of tampon tax matters because it demonstrates the power of online politics. Nothing encapsulates this more than the moment the mother of one of my friends told me that she supported my petition because she campaigned to end the 5% tax rate when she was my age. Stella Creasy MP and countless others have said the same over the years. Their experiences prove the power and potential of online petition sites like change.org. Just a few decades ago, small groups of women campaigning to end tampon tax could easily be ignored by decision makers and political figures. But today, we have access to new political tools, online. The 320,000 people who signed my first petition are not so easy to ignore. Petition sites not only allow us to collect a centralized and unequivocal number of supporters that legitimize a cause, but they also provide an organizational tool to help coordinate tangible actions. Even if just 10% of my petition signers write and tweet to their local MP when I email them asking to do so, they create a force to be reckoned with. With the rise of online politics, a wider variety of voices are being amplified than ever before and policy changes are beginning to reflect this.
Finally, the axing of tampon tax represents the end of one aspect of the period taboo. Even when I started the tampon tax campaign in 2014, very few politicians would return my emails or say the word ‘period’ in parliament. Plan International UK has since found that 49% of schoolgirls often skip school because they would rather jeopardize their education than risk their peers discovering they’re on their period and 70% don’t buy period products when they need them because they don’t want to be seen in the period aisle. Overcoming the tampon tax, which was kept in place partly because of the period taboo and a feeling of shame about discussing the topic, marks a chipping away at the shame and silencing society often places on women and their bodies.
During international women’s history month, we can finally celebrate the ending of tampon tax and the campaigning work of so many men and women! We can look forward to the increasing number of women making waves in politics and shaping the political agenda and the policy changes that can translate to. We can also celebrate the huge amount of unprecedented work that’s being done to end period poverty, from the government’s new schools scheme which allows any school to opt-in to free period products to the Equality Office’s Period Poverty Task Force, dedicated to ending period poverty by 2025.
The Whitehouse team are experts in gender politics, providing political consultancy and public affairs advice. More information about our gender and political policy experience can be found here, or, if you have any questions, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org.