Period taxes are unfair. Menstrual products are essential items and should be taxed as such. However, in many countries, this is not the case. In 2019 WASH United initiated a project to support menstrual health and hygiene (MHH) activists and practitioners to campaign for the removal and/or reduction of taxes on menstrual products. Through our period tax project, we shared essential information about taxation, created case studies to share best practices from global campaigns, and guided activists and practitioners through their advocacy strategy.
In December 2022, we hosted a web talk to wrap up the project. We brought together researchers, journalists, activists, and other interested parties to discuss the status and outlook of the period tax movement worldwide. This piece covers the highlights of the event.
Bahar Aldanmaz (she/her) is finalising her PhD at Boston University, researching period poverty policies worldwide. In parallel, Bahar continues her grassroots and movement-building work to achieve menstrual justice in Turkey through her role as the co-founder of the We Need to Talk Association.
Diana Baptista (she/her) is a data journalist at Context, a media platform by the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Mexico City. Diana's focus is reporting on inclusive economies, gender issues, and technology’s impact on society. Diana has a graduate degree in Data Journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Jesselina Rana (she/her) is a menstrual health activist from Nepal. She co-founded Pad2Go, a social enterprise that introduced Nepal's first sanitary pad vending machines. Jesselina is a lawyer by profession and graduated from Harvard Law School.
The discussion was moderated by Ina Jurga (she/her), the International Coordinator of Menstrual Hygiene Day at WASH United.
In 2019, period brand einhorn and the magazine NEON launched an additional petition to the Petitions Committee of the German parliament. This petition reached the necessary 50,000 signatures, so the Petitions Committee invited einhorn and NEON to discuss the issue of reducing VAT on period products to 7%.
To kick off the discussion, we heard from Jesselina, Bahar and Diana, who each introduced their work and perspectives on period taxes. We then discussed the topic in more detail, considering themes such as the successes and challenges of period tax campaigns, recommendations to other practitioners, lessons learned and much more.
In our research, we found that period tax campaigns were a successful gateway to encourage public conversation around menstruation and period poverty. This was echoed by Diana, who explained that period tax campaigns can start a public dialogue and highlighted the importance of dialogue to create change.
There are several examples of period tax campaigns that have led to more political attention and subsequent policy change. The most prominent example is from the UK, where a successful campaign generated tremendous traction and, supported by emerging studies around period poverty, resulted in free products being provided in schools.
When Pad2go started their period tax campaign in Nepal, there was already much dialogue around menstrual health hygiene among the public, practitioners, the media and the government. However, in Turkey, where the tax was decreased from 18% to 8%, there has been less success in broadening the conversation around menstruation. "In Turkey, period tax campaigns could be a dead end. After reducing taxes, the government are likely to push back. They could say: What do you need from us, we decreased the tax, or we removed it? What more do you want?", explained Bahar. Furthermore, public conversation in Turkey was stymied as menstrual products were referred to by a code rather than named explicitly. Bahar told us that very few recognised that menstrual products were referred to in this way and that the tax change to menstrual products wasn't mentioned in the mass media. It was Bahar’s association (Konuşmamız Gerek-We Need to Talk) that revealed this problem.
There is a risk that prices stay the same after a tax change, as recently shown in a report about UK tampon prices. These findings show how important it is to hold manufacturers accountable. According to Diana, the media has a role in creating pressure on retailers and manufacturers to pass on price reductions that arise from tax changes. However, a lack of data is a critical obstacle to accountability. Diana said: "If you don't have the data, how can you keep the retailers accountable? It would be very interesting to start the campaigns by thinking about how we can help the media track the changes and costs and how to access reliable data through time." Diana recommended going to shops, tracking the prices, and reviewing the data over an extended period.
Period tax campaigns may focus on particular products above others or over more traditional methods of managing menstruation. Jesselina said: "In the South Asian region, tampons are not as widely used as disposable and reusable pads. It is important to ensure every movement is inclusive in advocating for all types of period products, because at the end day it is still the consumer's choice to decide which product to use." Similarly, in Turkey, 13 per cent of menstruators still use cloth and toilet paper, a traditional menstrual care practice. According to Bahar, focusing on pads and tampons creates an unnecessary hierarchy. She said: "When you highlight tampon usage or pad usage, you create a hierarchy feeling of dissonance within menstruators. They think they are doing something wrong by using cloth. So, I am questioning that hierarchy. Why are we putting this emphasis on new products? We don't create space to talk about other menstrual experiences, like pain."
Good MHH has many factors, such as access to accurate information, adequate water, sanitation and hygiene services, and care and health services throughout the menstrual cycle. In addition, this includes the ability to participate in society without menstruation-related exclusion, restrictions, discrimination and violence. However, the risk of menstrual products as a one-size-fits-all solution to address MHH has been voiced in recent years. It has been asserted that the full spectrum of menstrual needs will be sidelined by focusing on period tax campaigns. Bahar told us: "I am afraid that because the tax has decreased, it might be even harder for us to push forward on other aspects of menstrual justice."
Different policy solutions exist to address period poverty, such as free products (in schools, universities, and institutions), subsided products, price caps, tax removal, or strengthening the market by increasing competition, providing favourable investment incentives to local companies. "Removing period tax isn't the solution to end period poverty. We are talking about more than just removing or reducing taxes; inflation, the cost of raw materials, politics. Period poverty manifests differently in each country”, said Diana. Around the world, we have seen dual policies being implemented to tackle period poverty, such as combining tax removal with free products. Key examples here exist in Kenya, France, India and the UK.
As the main discussion drew to a close, several comments from the floor highlighted the importance of the role of men in achieving good MHH for all, and positive examples were given from Djibouti, the Philippines and Ghana. According to Francis Ametepey, who ran the #endperiodpoverty campaign in Ghana, access to period products is not a gender issue; it is a global crisis that governments must address.
Towards the end of the discussion, we came to a consensus. We recognised that the political context, cultures and menstrual needs in each country vary. Affordability and accessibility differ in each country and depend on the market. Therefore, it is essential to start by researching and understanding your local context. Campaigners and practitioners should consider their local context carefully, including who doesn't have access and why. Importantly, whether tax removal successfully reduces the price of products or not, this is specific to each economy and how the tax system works.
Finally, take the time to understand and evaluate campaigning and advocacy work that has happened, and that may be ongoing, in your country so that your work builds on the successes and learnings of your peers.