Long Reads

Why the government’s pledge to end period poverty is so vitally important

As Philip Hammond vows to tackle period poverty in his spring statement, Laura Coryton, who has campaigned against tampon tax for five years, explains why this long-awaited action is so important.

In 2014, I started a petition against the ‘luxury’ tax rate we pay on period products. Before then, many (including me!) had never heard of the tampon tax. Yet for over 50 years we have been paying tax on period products, including tampons, sanitary pads and menstrual cups.

That’s right: in 1973, a 17.5% tampon tax rate was introduced. Today, we still pay tax on period products, albeit at a reduced rate of 5% thanks to hero MP, Dawn Primarolo, who successfully campaigned to lessen the tax in 2001.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about the tampon tax is its context. Our tax system is riddled with absurdities. While period products are taxed because they are considered ‘luxury goods’, other items escape tax altogether because they are more ‘essential’. These purchases include maintaining our private helicopters, eating exotic meats including crocodile and horse, and playing bingo, all of which enjoy a 0% tax rate. Now, I enjoy a good bingo game as much as the next woman, but surely we can all agree that period products are more ‘essential’ to our lives?

tampon tax period poverty

“I decided to do something I had never done before, and started my own petition against tampon tax”

Five years ago, when I first discovered the sexism that riddles our tax system, I was confused. Then I got angry. Why were we all paying tax on period products when those who can afford private helicopters maintain them, tax free? I was gunning to sign a petition against the tax, having signed so many before, including Caroline Criado-Perez’s petition to keep Jane Austen on our banknotes. 

But I couldn’t find any campaigns relating to tampon tax. So I decided to do something I had never done before: I started my own petition.

Since then, a lot has changed. My petition gained the support of over 320,090 amazing people and together we pushed our tampon-tax-ending legislation through Westminster and the EU. But now we’re caught up in Brexit

In 2016, David Cameron took our campaign to the European Union, which holds authority over all member states’ taxation legislation, and proposed an unprecedented motion. He argued that for the first time in EU history, the Union should let any member state reduce a specific tax to their lowest national rate if they want to. That was tampon tax! His motion passed with unanimous support. 

It will take until 2022 for this to finish going through European Parliament, but when it does, we expect to see waves of countries ending tampon tax. If we exit the European Union before 2022, then we have also secured UK legislation which is set to axe tampon tax ‘as soon as legally possible’. So we either need to wait for Brexit, or 2022. That’s a long time, but there is a lot of work to do in the meantime.

What was next for the fight against tampon tax?

period poverty

Half of women feel uncomfortable discussing their periods at work.

Since my original petition, we have partnered with sister tampon tax petitions across the world. In 2015 we worked alongside Canadian activists, who spent six months planning the launch of their own tampon tax petition. When they launched it and presented their work to the Canadian Parliament, they won within just six months. That truly shows the power of online activism. 

Over the past year, our sister petitions have won in places including India, Colombia and Canada. If you know anyone living in a country that has tampon tax, ask them to speak up! Even Barack Obama commented on the tax in 2016, arguing that if politics was a more female-friendly sphere then we wouldn’t be dealing with gender discriminatory policies like the tampon tax. For context, campaigners across the USA are currently fighting against tampon tax, which is implemented to varying degrees and is being campaigned against on a state-by-state basis. 

Now, we don’t want the government to forget about their tampon tax promises, or the legislation that we have worked so hard to push through. So, to keep conversations about periods and tampon tax alive until 2022, and remind the government that we’re keeping an eye on the situation, we have started to speak up about other issues affected by the period taboo. 

The first was period poverty. In 2016, we launched our Homeless Period Project, which lobbied Bodyform and P&G, the creators of Tampax tampons and Always sanitary pads, to give their surplus stock to food banks and homeless shelters. After we successfully secured an agreed donation of 100,000 products, we started to wonder who else was effected by period poverty. That’s when teachers started to speak up about their concerns over students facing period poverty. 

Why was Philip Hammond’s spring statement so important?

sanitary pad

The government has finally pledged to end period poverty in schools

This issue eventually caught the attention of government ministers, as we have now seen. At midday today, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced his spring statement, the second most important financial statement of the year. Within this, he set his mini-budget for the year and revealed a whole heap of funding allocations, including new investments in digital technologies across the country and a £717m investment in new houses in areas including West London, Cheshire, Didcot, and Cambridge.

But one of the most amazing details in Hammond’s statement, revealed at the end of his announcement, was his commitment to ending period poverty in our schools. He said that in response to “growing concern from head teachers over access to period products”, he will fund the provision of free period products in secondary schools and colleges across England from next year. This is huge. 

While five years ago I thought the tampon tax was an isolated problem, we have since discovered that many aspects of our everyday lives are dominated by the taboo surrounding periods, which has also led to period poverty and to girls missing school as a result. This announcement today is a huge step forward for schoolgirls, but also for anyone else who has ever campaigned against the period taboo and related topics including the tampon tax.

Hammond’s announcement is also significant for the education of girls. Research by charity Freedom4Girls has shown that 10% of schoolgirls miss school because they do not have access to period products. That’s more than 137,000 girls. 

This can happen for many reasons. Research from the Social Metrics Commission has showed that 14 million people, including 4.5 million children, are living in poverty here in the UK. Food banks use in the UK has reached the highest on record

What needs to change?

period poverty in schools

“None of the schools I’ve visited offer free period products in their bathrooms”

I regularly campaign with schoolgirls to secure the provision of period products in schools, and some say their families simply cannot afford to provide all of their children with sanitary towels. Many girls feel they don’t want to take away from their struggling parents or ask them for period products when they can barely afford to put food on the table. I hear this story over and over again, and it’s heartbreaking. 

Simultaneously, research has recently shown that 91% of schools are facing funding cuts. None of the schools I’ve visited offer free period products in their bathrooms. One girl I met last weekend, while I was giving a school talk on campaigning, told me that her school has just five bathrooms in total. None of these have toilet paper, let alone period products. They have nowhere to turn and often feel that nobody is listening to them. 

But today, at last, the government began to listen. Hammond’s provision of free period products in schools and colleges across England will go a long way to ensuring girls simply have access to the vital period products they need to be able to go to school while on their periods. If girls can’t access period products at home, they will be able to find the products they desperately need at their schools.

This period poverty announcement is particularly amazing because it was lobbied for through the internet, with mainly women and girls speaking up online. Projects like the Red Box Project, which has campaigned to provide free period products to everyone who needs them for years, and Amika George who started a petition calling on the government to give free period products to girls on free school meals, spread their messages and demands online. The government is listening to activism that springs across the internet.

When we campaign together on issues that have held us back for generations, just like period poverty, we can make huge changes. Together we have secured a change that a few years ago seemed inconceivable: a solution to period poverty here in the UK, period.

Images: Getty, Unsplash