“India has scrapped its tampon tax. Why are we still paying it in the UK?”

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Moya Crockett
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The world’s ‘most dangerous country for women’ is ending taxes on sanitary products – but in the supposedly enlightened UK, we’re still being forced to pay up. 

There is a tactic I often see used online by people – usually men – who want to shut down conversations about the need for feminism. Underneath a tweet or Facebook status or Instagram post in which a woman complains about sexism, harassment or another form of gender inequality, someone else – usually a man – will inevitably argue that British women don’t know how good they have it.

‘Try living in a country like Saudi Arabia or Iran or India,’ these people – usually men – will say. It’s a deeply stupid argument, not least because it’s perfectly possible to be concerned about gender inequality in other countries and still feel p**sed off about issues such as sexual harassment, the gender pay gap and maternity discrimination in the UK. (It’s also notable that the people who make this argument almost never express concern for the women of Saudi Arabia or Iran or India outside of these feminist-baiting discussions.) Despite its stupidity, however, it’s a tactic that gets wheeled out time and time again.

Occasionally, though, a story comes along that challenges the image of the UK as a relative bastion of gender equality. That happened on Saturday (21 July), when the Indian government announced it was scrapping the 12% tax imposed on sanitary pads. 

That’s right: the country decried in a major report last month as “the world’s most dangerous country for women” now has a more progressive approach to tampon tax than the UK.

Piyush Goyal, India’s acting finance minister, announced the changes 

India’s “sisters and mothers will be happy to hear that sanitary pads have been given a 100% exemption and brought down to a tax rate of zero,” said Piyush Goyal, the country’s acting finance minister. “Now there will be no [tax] on sanitary pads.”

India joins countries including Kenya, Ireland and Canada in the list of countries with no levy on sanitary products, including tampons, pads and panty liners. In the UK, in contrast, women are still forced to pay a 5% tax on feminine hygiene products, the result of VAT laws set by the European Economic Community.

Several governments have grappled with the problem: Tony Blair’s ministry reduced the tax rate from 17.5% to 5% in 2001, while former Chancellor George Osborne controversially decided that money raised by the tax should be donated to women’s charities (even more controversially, it later emerged that some of that money had been given to an anti-abortion charity – and most of the groups awarded funding as a result of the tampon tax are not specialist women’s organisations). But they’ve all failed to eliminate the tax altogether.

Perhaps most frustratingly, Osborne actually announced that the tampon tax would be abolished in 2016. Two years later, though, we’re still paying it – and thanks to Brexit complications, it could be 2022 before the tax is finally scrapped.  

Women at a protest against the tampon tax in France 

India scrapping its tampon tax doesn’t mean that it’s not a dangerous place for many women, or that its government is more inherently female-friendly than ours. Miseducation and taboos surrounding menstruation are still dangerously prevalent across India, particularly in rural communities, and it seems as though the country’s government only removed its sanitary product tax after intensive campaigning by feminist activists. But it does highlight that the UK is not as globally superior when it comes to matters of gender equality as many people would like to think.

For millions of British women, periods are an unavoidable fact of life – one that can cost us hundreds of pounds over the course of our menstruating years. On the most basic level, it’s unacceptable that we’re still having to pay extra for tampons and pads, while items such as marshmallow teacakes, lottery tickets and crocodile meat are classed as ‘essentials’ and therefore not taxed.

It’s also important to view the tampon tax in the context of conversations about UK period poverty. In a developed nation where 15% of girls have struggled to afford sanitary wear, that 5% tax is a serious feminist issue.

So, yes. Let’s cheer for our sisters in India, and admire the success of those campaigners who fought for the tax on sanitary products to be scrapped. But let’s not get complacent, or be fooled into thinking that the UK doesn’t still have a lot of work to do when it comes to gender equality. And the next time a man tells you that British women don’t know how good they have it compared to women in other countries, kindly direct him to this article, and tell him to STFU.

Images: Getty Images