UK abolishes tampon tax, but stigma remains

In December we were incredibly pleased to learn that the United Kingdom had abolished the tax on sanitary products as part of a wider movement to end period poverty. The roll out, which came into effect January 1st 2021, will also included free access to pad and tampons in schools, universities and hospitals. The reform was made possible in part by the UK’s recent freedom from the European Union, which mandates a 5% tax on sanitary products.

The UK’s move to scrap the tax follows on from other countries such as Scotland, Canada, India, Kenya, several states in the US and Australia where sanitary products are tax free.

While the move was met with a mostly warm reception and relief, the news also demonstrated that the stigma around menstruation unfortunately still blossoms when sanitary products are discussed in a public forum. One particular UK radio announcer took issue with the image chosen by the British Government to share the happy news, stating that the DRAWING of a CLEAN tampon was “obscene”. Heaven’s above! Imagine if the image in question had been an actual photo of a tampon and not a mere rendering. Not to mention if the picture had included even a hint of menstrual blood or the slightest suggestion of what a tampon is actually used for or where it is placed in the body. Get the fainting couch ready for this gentleman, ladies!

Tampon tax abolished tweet
Image courtesy of Twitter

None of this commentary is necessary or helpful to ending global period poverty or the stigmas that surrounds menstruation. In fact, commentary like this can be incredibly harmful to the cause and feeds the stigma. Across the world, and particularly in Developing Countries, people with periods are forced to be absent from school and work, or even drop out due to their period. This means that these people are unable to meet their full potential. For example:

  • In Sierra Leone, girls miss around 50 school days every year due to their period.
  • 65% of women in Kenya cannot afford sanitary products. 
  • In India, 70% of all reproductive diseases are caused by poor menstrual hygiene.
  • 1 in 10 girls in the UK have been unable to afford proper sanitary care. 
  • 48% of girls in Iran believe menstruation is a disease
  • In remote and regional Australia, Indigenous girls report skipping school when they have their period because they are unable to access sanitary products or cannot afford them

When looking at these statistics and reports it becomes clear that ideas and commentary around menstruation being ‘obscene’, dirty, impure or unclean have harmful real world consequences for people who menstruate. Women are left feeling ashamed of a natural process that occurs in the body, completely our of their control. Ever hid a pad or a tampon up your sleeve as you sheepishly dashed to the bathroom? Ever felt overwhelming embarrassment explaining to a sexual partner that you were on your period? Ever felt red faced at the supermarket buying pads and tampons from a male check out operator? While these experiences are on the lower end of the period shame spectrum, if you answered yes to any of them you have experienced period stigma.

So how can we help to end the stigma once and for all and normalise menstruation? You can do something small but brave like not hide that pad and tampon on your way to the loo. In the words of Missy Elliot ‘ain’t no shame, ladies do your thang!’. Try having an open dialogue about menstruation no matter who you’re talking to. Let the men in your life know when you have cramps or are feeling irritable due to a particularly bad bout of PMS. They shouldn’t need protecting from one of your bodies most amazing functions. Educate yourself about how people around the world experience menstruation and how stigmas negatively effect their lives and lead to poor education and health outcomes. May we suggest starting here. And last but possibly most important of all, if you hear someone speaking shamefully about period, try to feel confident enough to call them out. Ask them politely why they think that way and what you can do to change their mind.

At the end of the day if someone wants to feel upset by a cartoon drawing of a tampon, this says more about them than it says anything about your body or how you menstruate. Let’s fight the taboo!

Alicia Franceschini

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