BY INDRA WARNES
I am confident that a large percentage of people go their entire lives without ever desperately needing edible sugar flowers. Admittedly, I've done absolutely no research into this, but I can’t think of a single occasion when I, or anyone I know, found themselves incapacitated by their lack of edible sugar flowers.
I think it’s fair to say that sanitary products, on the other hand, are pretty desperately needed – i.e. by half the population on a monthly basis. I'd like to think that most people would have the intelligence to recognise that sanitary products are in fact essential, more so than edible sugar flowers. Unfortunately, it appears those lacking this intelligence were the very people voted into Parliament last May, in the confidence that they could best represent our needs.
On the off chance you’ve been living under a rock for the past year (and are therefore completely bewildered as to why I’m comparing edible sugar flowers to sanitary products) I am of course talking about the so-called “Tampon Tax”. The majority of products you buy in this country will cost you 20% VAT, but (and I’m quoting the government directly here) you can expect this tax to be less on the “essential items”. And by essential items I am of course talking about edible sugar flowers, Jaffa Cakes, and horsemeat, which is handy for us Brits. I’m sure you all remember how unanimously thrilled the nation was, back in 2013, when we discovered what Findus (among others) had been accidentally feeding us with their delicious “beef” lasagne. As a nation we should consider ourselves lucky that we aren’t being taxed on all the horsemeat that is clearly so essential to our collective diet.
Tampons and sanitary pads on the other hand, well, it seems the government isn’t quite as clued up on the necessity of those. Once a month, when a menstruating individual might be feeling a bit miserable thanks to the blood coming out of their vagina (as well as a range of other equally-annoying symptoms: sore breasts, crippling cramps, backaches, headaches, and nausea) perhaps the perfect way to cheer them up is with a luxurious tampon.
Because that’s what tampons are, right? Well, that’s what they’re categorised as under VAT, indicating that at least someone in a position of influence thinks so. Not an essential item, no. A luxury; to buy as well as to need. What this means essentially is that, unlike people buying men’s razors (which are tax-free), people with periods have to pay 5% VAT on every box of tampons and pack of pads they purchase. Sounds sort of like having a uterus is a luxury too, despite being, you know, the organ that harbours every new life. That's sounds quite essential actually, come to think of it.
Hopefully the problem with the inclusion of tampons under "luxury times" is clear, but I’ll break it down for you anyway. In the case of tax-free men’s razors… If a man doesn’t shave, at worst he grows a beard. And, let’s face it, beards are pretty cool right now. I know this is a fact because Shoreditch is cool, and everybody in Shoreditch loves a beard. A man with a beard doesn’t worry about being shunned or mocked for his facial hair. Having a beard is a largely personal choice, and yet, men’s razors are deemed an essential item.
Now, on the other hand, a someone menstruating doesn’t have the luxury of choice. If they don’t use sanitary products, they still bleed. Everywhere, through everything, onto everything, and this (even in Shoreditch) is considered a social faux pas. Despite the protection of pads and tampons, sometimes getting blood on your clothes is unavoidable. Ask anyone who has rushed home or to the “privacy” of a public toilet with visible period blood on their behind and they’ll tell you how luxurious an experience it is. Sanitary products, as the hygienic solution to an unfairly stigmatised bodily function, should not be considered a luxury.
When the issue of taxing tampons began to emerge in the public spotlight earlier this year, a lot of people were quite angry about it. On average, those who menstruate will use a minimum of 11,000 tampons in their lifetimes. At approximately £3.14 a box, a person earning minimum wage must work 38 days to pay for a lifetime of periods. This means period-havers, who must swaddle the dirty secret of their fertility in cotton panty-liners, will end up working over a month solely to avoid the ridicule of an essential bodily function.
A petition to have the tampon tax scrapped has so far been signed by over 270,000 people. However, when the matter was raised in Parliament last month, MPs voted against Labour’s Finance Bill Amendment, which would have forced a negotiation with the EU to reduce the existing 5% VAT rate. At 305 votes to 287, the amendment was rejected.
What does this teach us? The majority of MPs still think that using sanitary products is a luxury. As an entirely unrelated observation, the majority of MPs are also male.
Brunel’s Women’s Officer, Christina Franklin, described the tampon tax as “unnecessary, illogical and inherently sexist.” She also said, “women should not have to bear the tax burden for something out of our control, whilst other items, such as men's shavers and Jaffa Cakes, are considered an absolute necessity. I am currently looking into ways in which we can introduce free sanitary products onto campus, so our students do not have to be subjected to this cost.” It is also important to note that it is not just women who are affected by this tax. Anyone purchasing sanitary products regularly will notice the costs adding up.
It’s very easy for me as a middle-class, white woman to complain about the ridiculousness of taxing people for having their period, but ultimately, I am one of the lucky ones. I have never been unable to afford sanitary products and it’s likely that I never will be. I’m probably never going to have to choose between spending my last few pounds on sanitary products, or eating a meal but ruining my clothes instead. There are many others who are not so lucky.
One in five people in this country are classed as living in poverty, and one in five adults have to choose between paying a bill and putting a meal on the table for their children. Foodbank usage is at an all-time high. There are many women who, without knowing the future health implications, decide to take the contraceptive pill continuously (rather than for the recommended three weeks of a month) to inhibit menstruation because the pill is free in this country and tampons are not.
While researching the tampon tax, I stumbled across a Vice News article on how difficult having periods is for the homeless, in which a woman called Zoe explained the problems having a period causes her living on the street. At the time the article was published, Zoe was 21; the same age as many of us at Brunel. She talks of begging friends for sanitary products, of having to resort to stealing them; which, she said, would have been utterly mortifying if caught. But, the fact remains she doesn’t have a choice. The alternative would be lining her knickers with toilet paper from a public toilet – an ineffective solution considering the ply-thickness of public toilet loo roll. Sanitary products are expensive and essential. Anyone with a basic understanding of economics can see the paradox of this combination.
A line from the article sums up why this issue makes many so angry: “How on earth are we in a position where women – who, it bears repeating, have absolutely no choice over whether their womb lining sheds each month – are having to sneak into McDonald's toilets and make do with stuffing toilet paper into their knickers to stop them bleeding through their clothes?”
We live in a country where MPs lack the compassion to realise taxing the maintenance of a bodily function is absolutely absurd. If menstruation is essential, then the hygienic maintenance of it must be also. Putting a price tag on periods is not a question of sanitation, but insanity.