IS PERIOD A LUXURY? SCOTLAND’S EFFORT TOWARDS THE ELIMINATION OF PERIOD POVERTY

Just a few days ago, on the 24th of November 2020, the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill was unanimously passed by the Scottish Parliament. This important text was already introduced in April 2019 by the Labour MSP Monica Lennon and it represents a revolutionary step forward in the attempt to end period poverty granting free universal access to fundamental health products like pads and tampons.1

Period poverty and “pink tax”: when being a woman is a luxury 

With period poverty it is possible to identify individuals’ lack of access to proper sanitary products and menstrual education as a result of monetary constraints. This constitutes a significant health risk for women and young girls[1]and it can also hinder their education, well-being and social interactions. It is estimated that in the world around 500 million women experience period poverty every month.[2] In Europe almost half of the Member States tax menstrual products as luxury items, making it difficult and sometimes impossible for lower income individuals to access basic sanitary goods.[3] This gender-based price discrepancy can be identified more generally with the name of “pink tax”.[4] When the tax is specifically targeted at menstrual hygiene products it is then called “tampon tax”. For example, Italy’s taxes are at 22% on tampons and pads while other men’s products like razors are considered essential goods and taxed 4%.[5] Also in gender-sensitive budgeting countries like Denmark and Sweden the tax on menstrual products is as high as 25%. The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the problem related to this category of products. During the first wave, shortages of sanitary products were heavily affecting women and in particular those living in remote areas.[6] This is due to the fact that menstrual suppliers are not compelled to produce since these products are not deemed as necessary.[7] In addition, another issue was the increase in the costs of this category of goods. Since the demand rose significantly, prices consequently followed, and it made it even more difficult for lower income individuals to afford sanitary products.

Positive global trends towards 

It is important to highlight that some European States have taken part in the effort of reducing the cost of sanitary products. The most important step before the Scottish groundbreaking decision was taken by Ireland that lowered the tampon tax to 0%. However, since 2006 the European Union Member States are governed by the Council directive on the common system of value added tax. This only allows a reduction of minimum 5% Value Added Tax (VAT) on sanitary products. The European Commission proposed new rules in 2018 to give Member States more flexibility to set VAT rates but these rules have not been enforced yet. Nonetheless countries like Spain, Greece, Austria, France and the UK reduced their fees on feminine products in line with the EU directive.[8] In the meantime, in the rest of the world, many countries already banned the tampon tax. The first was Kenya, that in 2004 repealed added tax on sanitary products and tampons and funded projects of distribution of sanitary towels for girls in school.[9] Other countries like Canada, India, Malaysia, Uganda, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago and Australia followed suit.[10] Also the UK in its Financial Statement of 2020 proposed a transition to 0% tax by January 2021. All of these positive changes to a more inclusive system paved the way to the latest Scottish decision: not only lowering the taxes but making sanitary products accessible to everyone for free in public facilities. This is the result of a bigger mobilization campaign that involved thousands of Scottish women identified with the name #FreeProductPeriod. When this law is enforced, it will charge local authorities, education providers and specific public service bodies with the duty to ensure the free access to period products.[11] And this access will not be exclusive to girls and women but also to non-binary and transgender or everyone that has a period. Monica Lennon, the MSP that introduced the bill, underlined how this decision is a big step forward in granting a positive change in the life of millions of individuals and how Scotland’s example can be inspiring for other countries.

Positive global trends towards 

It is important to highlight that some European States have taken part in the effort of reducing the cost of sanitary products. The most important step before the Scottish groundbreaking decision was taken by Ireland that lowered the tampon tax to 0%. However, since 2006 the European Union Member States are governed by the Council directive on the common system of value added tax. This only allows a reduction of minimum 5% Value Added Tax (VAT) on sanitary products. The European Commission proposed new rules in 2018 to give Member States more flexibility to set VAT rates but these rules have not been enforced yet. Nonetheless countries like Spain, Greece, Austria, France and the UK reduced their fees on feminine products in line with the EU directive.[1]

In the meantime, in the rest of the world, many countries already banned the tampon tax. The first was Kenya, that in 2004 repealed added tax on sanitary products and tampons and funded projects of distribution of sanitary towels for girls in school.[2] Other countries like Canada, India, Malaysia, Uganda, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago and Australia followed suit.[3] Also the UK in its Financial Statement of 2020 proposed a transition to 0% tax by January 2021.

All of these positive changes to a more inclusive system paved the way to the latest Scottish decision: not only lowering the taxes but making sanitary products accessible to everyone for free in public facilities. This is the result of a bigger mobilization campaign that involved thousands of Scottish women identified with the name #FreeProductPeriod. When this law is enforced, it will charge local authorities, education providers and specific public service bodies with the duty to ensure the free access to period products.[4] And this access will not be exclusive to girls and women but also to non-binary and transgender or everyone that has a period. Monica Lennon, the MSP that introduced the bill, underlined how this decision is a big step forward in granting a positive change in the life of millions of individuals and how Scotland’s example can be inspiring for other countries.

The role of education

This bill has an undeniable role in fostering progress and challenging existing discriminatory taxes and/or laws. However, it is also important to highlight the role that shame plays in the life of young menstruating girls. Menstrual stigma causes women and girls to feel embarrassed and ashamed about the normal biological functions of their bodies. In some countries, period related stigmas push girls not to attend school. In Uganda 50% of girls skip school when they are on their period for fear of being teased by their classmates. In the worst cases women are physically stigmatized. For example, in Nepal, some communities perceive period as impure and they confine menstruating women to huts.[5]Regarding Scotland itself, the report says that just one third of girls feel uncomfortable asking teachers for period products in school.[6]For this reason, alongside the importance of granting free access to sanitary products, a greater attention should be given to education and training for girls and women, schools and parents to overcome the stigmas and shame surrounding periods.

Note

[1] Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill, As passed on 24th November 2020

[2] Not all self-identifying women have periods. This is referring to those who do.

[3] Choi, A., How social media helps reduce menstrual stigma, 30 October 2020

[4] Lum, K., Menstruation is not a luxury, Young Feminist Europe, 2019

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Fish, O., 5 Challenges of Period Poverty During COVID-19, Borgen Magazine, 28 October 2020

[8] Ibid.

[9] Del Vayo, M., Belmonte E., Half of the European countries levy the same VAT on sanitary towels and tampons as on tobacco, beer and wine, 2018

[10] Sagala, I., Sanitary products still too expensive, Development and Cooperation, 2019

[11] Ibid. 9

[12] Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill, As passed on 24th November 2020

[13] Ibid 7

[14] Broster, A., Scotland’s Pioneering Law To Make Period Products Free & End Period Poverty

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