How The ‘Tampon Tax’ Violates Human Rights
By Dani Barrington & Maggie Hardy
According to lifestyle gurus (e.g. Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, Hello Giggles, and Feministing), 2015 was the “Year of the Period,” when people around the world worked together to “normalize” what is, in fact, a completely normal bodily function.
But despite the buzz suggesting otherwise, it’s clear we still have a long way to go in treating menstruation like it should be treated.
The packaging and commercials are, of course, bad enough: To name but a couple examples, U.S. TV networks banned companies from mentioning what body part tampons are for a few years ago, and THINX subway adverts making the most vague of connections between women and menstruation were deemed “inappropriate” just last year.
But equally egregious is the way our legal systems treat menstruation: Consumers in many places — including Australia, the UK, and many U.S. states — must pay a “luxury tax” on menstrual hygiene products, as they are not considered “essential” items, unlike other goods such as condoms, dental dams and female condoms, lubricants, folic acid, sunscreen, and nicotine withdrawal aids. Unsurprisingly, many people find this tax ridiculous and discriminatory. And many of us — particularly in Australia and the United Kingdom — have been protesting about the injustice for years.
It seemed 2015 might be the time when we reached critical mass and our voices were finally heard — if not listened to.
In Australia, the tempest surrounding the so called “Tampon Tax” came to a head very publicly on the Australian Broadcasting Channel, when university student Subeta Vimalarajah asked then-Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey whether he believed that sanitary products are an “essential” health good for half the population.
Hockey granted that the tax is unfair and agreed to lobby the states to remove the Goods and Services (GST) tax on sanitary products, which earns Australia $30 million annually. (For comparison, $30 million is the amount Queenslanders spent to see the 2015 NRL Grand Final in Sydney last year.)
So far, Australian efforts to repeal the tax have failed, although there has been success in other places — in Canada and France, the tax has been successfully removed; the situation is looking positive in the United Kingdom; there are moves to remove the tax in U.S. states including New York and Wisconsin; and just this week, the tax was repealed in Chicago and the European Union agreed to allow each member state to decide independently if they will apply it.
Last year the Australian people were told by then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott that the 10% tax could only be removed so long as every State and Territory agreed, a requirement of A New Tax System (Goods and Services Tax) Act 1999. (This in itself is deemed questionable by legal experts who argue that the requirement of the GST to be unanimously altered by all States and Territories can in fact be changed by the Federal Government, requiring approval not from States and Territories, but the Federal Senate.)
This announcement was followed by a discussion among State Treasurers in August of last year to discuss whether they would unanimously support abolishing the tax. It ultimately failed, but they did agree to expand the GST to cover all online goods and services sold into Australia.
However, even without the support of individual states or changing the GST Act via the senate, the Federal Health Minister can add essential items to the list of Health Goods and, in doing so, remove the GST on them.
Despite comments that the Tampon Tax is a “tokenistic distraction” from “real” women’s issues in Australia, the tax undeniably infringes on human rights. Last year was a landmark one for sanitation; the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, including a target to “achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.”
They also recognized sanitation as a standalone human right. UN Resolution 70/169 calls for equal participation of women in water and sanitation management, and specific measures to reduce the gender-specific burdens of women and girls. While neither Resolution suggests that sanitation services must be free, they do indicate that they must be affordable.
While it is often assumed that a lack of access to toilets and menstrual hygiene products is a problem relegated to developing countries, Homelessness Australia estimates that on any given night, 1 in 200 Australians are homeless, and that 44% of these people are female. On a daily basis there are tens of thousands of menstruating women on the streets, in their car, or on the couch of a friend or stranger.
Moreover, as these statistics only indicate binary genders, this overlooks the LGBTI population, which comprises a disproportionate section of the homeless population; it’s fair to assume that there are also transgender individuals — and those who don’t identify as a particular gender — also facing this issue.
The Australian charity Share the Dignity has been collecting stories on the decisions homeless individuals have had to make:
- Choosing between food for themselves, and often their children, or purchasing sanitary products.
- Risking infection by creating makeshift pads, often from newspaper.
- Stealing sanitary products out of desperation.
- Staying home from school when they have their period because their family cannot afford sanitary items.
So, yes, taxing people for sanitary items does infringe on their human rights. Everyone should have a fair go at being able to afford sanitary products. And it’s not just about the tax — a recent video by Tanya Targett shows that a packet of tampons that costs $4.83 at Woolworths was selling for $19.50 at the Melbourne Airport.
Yet as the UN Rapporteur for the Human Right to Water and Sanitation points out:
“According to international human rights law, the State must take measures to ensure, as soon as possible, access to water and adequate sanitation that are accessible, available, affordable, acceptable, and safe in all spheres of life. The realization of these rights also requires providing access to adequate and affordable hygiene practices, including hand-washing and menstrual hygiene management.”
Governments — globally — should both abolish the Tampon Tax and investigate how we regulate the price of these products. Our periods are not a luxury. And managing them with hygiene and dignity is our human right.
If you would like to contribute to abolishing the tax, please sign a petition lobbying your local, state, or national politicians. In Australia, you can sign Share the Dignity’s petition to abolish the tax here. For a list of other petitions circulating worldwide, check out It’s a #BloodyDisgrace.
And don’t forget to celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28 — this year’s theme is “Menstruation Matters for Everyone Everywhere.” In Australia we will be “Sharing the DigniTEA” at 10 locations across the country. For celebrations in other countries, please keep an eye on the Menstrual Hygiene Day website and follow #MHDay and #MenstruationMatters on Twitter.
Lead image: Wikimedia Commons