A viral petition begun in early May has now been signed by over 100,000 people in Australia – and has been putting pressure on authorities this week. A group of student activists is leading the charge to end the ten percent “goods and services” tax levied on sanitary products, which they argue is a taxation on women’s health.
According to Australian law, nonessential products are subject to a ten percent sales tax, whereas vital health-related items are not. Several products skirt the “goods and services” tax, including produce, condoms, lubricants, sunscreen, and incontinence pads. But the exemption does not apply to feminine hygiene products, which this week’s petition argues boils down to taxation for menstruation.
Student Subeta Vimalarajah, a vocal critic of the “goods and services” tax on tampons and pads, leads the movement. In an op-ed for the BBC, Vimalarajah wrote that she resents the fact that the government is making a profit on her period. “It’s one thing to make everything taxable, but it’s different when the government has identified “important” health goods as exempt, but refuses to acknowledge sanitary products as in this category,” she argued. “I can’t see the distinction between incontinence pads, sunscreen and condoms (which are exempt) and sanitary products.” Other methods Vimalarajah and her supporters have used to attract attention to their cause have been playful, including a recent demonstration that featured people dressed as six-foot tall tampons.
On Tuesday’s episode of Q&A, an Australian news panel show, Vimalarajah went head to head with Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey. She pressured him on air to end taxation on a “bodily function,” and asked point blank whether he considers sanitary products an “essential good.” Hockey affirmed that he did, and that the tax should probably be dropped — a move that many saw as a strong indicator that change lies ahead. Hockey promised to raise the issue at the next state treasurers meeting in July.
The Australian anti-tax campaign is just the latest in a string of high-profile controversies centering on the sexist politics of treating menstruation products as nonessential goods. Recent campaigns in Canada, as well as several U.S. states, have asked similar questions. As the Toronto Star noted in a recent piece about a similar fight against a so-called gender-based tax, “the sluggish pace of progress is perceived by some to be an indicator of the way women’s issues are often shunted aside in politics.”
Even without a tax, the cost of sanitary items can be a prohibitive obstacle that denies women access to these necessities. The fact that the SNAP program – an American subsidy program that helps provide basic needs for low-income households – doesn’t cover sanitary products, and recent campaigns highlighting the challenges of menstrual management among women without homes have sparked discussions about how we think about these costs in North America.
But the cost and availability of sanitary products are especially troubling in developing countries, where the imported products can be staggeringly expensive relative to local incomes. This is closely related to cultural taboos surrounding menstruation, which are often so strong that they hamper advocacy for change. In earthquake-plagued Nepal, some women resorted to allocating part of their already meager water supply to clean rags they used while menstruating. In parts of Africa, studies have shown a correlation between menstruation and truancy from school, owing perhaps to enduring stigma and shame. In parts of South Asia, public restroom facilities have repeatedly shown to be inadequate for menstrual management, which development organizations say is a result of the lack of public discussion of women’s needs. In still other countries, including India, it is considered shameful for women to publicly purchase pads or tampons in markets — and men across societies refuse to be emasculated by doing so on their behalf.
But while political advancement in issues surrounding menstruation may seem frustratingly slow, there is also cause for optimism. Researcher Julia Olson, whose MA thesis at New York University focused on the politics of menstruation, sees the fact that periods are becoming a rallying point in global policy discussions as a function of women’s increasing representation in the public sphere. “As women are becoming more visible and are taking on more leadership roles, women’s health and physiology are getting real attention,” Olson said. “And therefore, the items they need to function in the modern world are being taken more seriously.”
She also argues that societies’ deeply-ingrained preconceptions about periods has a real impact on women’s well being. This, Olson says, should shape the messaging we deliver to girls about their bodies: “When women themselves are faced with menstrual blood as a regular biological function and not something that is dirty or shameful, it also helps to open the convo.”
Whether or not activism that frames menstruation as a gender equality and health issue will have a widespread impact on policy remains to be seen. But it seems clear that when women lead discussions about these topics, the social results are indisputably positive.