lower tampon taxes and free sanitary products
Menstruation Equity

Paid period leaves, lower tampon taxes and free sanitary products: progress on women’s needs around the world



Although positive developments have been made, commitments both from governments and the private sector around the world are necessary to stop considering topics such as menstruations as taboos. Paid period leaves, different taxes on tampons in every country, and a list of places where governments provide free menstrual products, let’s dive into this!



Paid period leaves: can the policy become real everywhere?

The debate over period leave has surged increasingly in the past few years, especially after some countries allowed people who menstruate to take some hours of leave every month (the amount varies in every country where the policy went into effect). As a matter of fact, a lot of women are often in the position of making the difficult decision between working despite menstrual symptoms or taking sick days. The implementation of paid period leaves at work would alleviate, if not eliminate, the taboo around menstruation, as well as the incredible pain women, suffer during menstruation, which becomes even harder to support when at work.


The need for a kind of policy like period leaves (either paid or unpaid) lays in the condition of some women who undergo dysmenorrhea or extreme pain during the first few days of the menstrual cycle. That debilitates their productivity, efficiency, and comfortability at the workplace. Indeed, it is essential to talk about menstruation, despite being still considered a taboo topic, especially at work. Considering the discomfort some female employees may feel during the first days of the menstrual cycle is not just an act of humanitarian concern nor a feminist issue: it symbolizes an understanding of physical discomfort and so it has to do with the welfare of all the employees (and not just the male ones) and of the company.  



If truth to be told, the discussion around menstrual leave has a complicated history. It originated in Russia almost a century ago, when women were allowed to stay home in order to protect their reproductive health. This purpose gained attention in Japan in the late 1920s and become law in the country in 1947. Today, the application of period leave varies across the Japanese country, in terms of the number of days off work and whether it is paid or not. In fact, a government study in 2014 discovered that only less than 0.9% of the women who participated in the survey had requested menstrual leave. The reasons for it? Embarrassment and lack of understanding – as well as empathy – from their male superiors. Even so that this precedent created the idea of women’s fragility during menstruation across East Asia.

 

 

In India, the offer of 10 days of paid menstrual leaves a year by a food delivery startup, Zomato, experienced a great response. The company implemented the policy and a spokesperson said that “it has been used by 621 employees who have taken more than 2,000 days of leave.” Although the menstrual leave started to gain traction around the world, the same did not happen in the USA. A survey of 600 Americans published in 2017 in the journal Health Care for Women International found out the half of the women who participated considered period leave as a negative implication in the workplace. As of 2021, the US has no federal requirement for paid sick leave.

 

 

Paid period leaves, lower tampon taxes and free sanitary products
Figure 1- source: The New York Times

 

Menstrual products are taxed as luxury items 

It’s not an exaggeration, menstrual products are taxed as luxury items around the world. It has been estimated that the average person with menstruation spends about $1,773 just on period products (tampons or pads) over a lifetime, and the amount soars at $18,171 if all the needs of someone during the period is taken under consideration. This kind of spending could be avoided if governments stop taxing pads and tampons as luxury goods and recognize them as necessary items. 

 

Paid period leaves, lower tampon taxes and free sanitary products
Figure 2- source: Huffington Post

Overall, around the world, 800 million people are on their period as you are reading this article. Also, it is estimated that 500 million live with inadequate menstrual hygiene. That is the reason why so many advocates are fighting for the tax exemption on menstrual products so that people can live in safety and particularly with dignity when in their period. 



But what is the tampon tax and how it varies around the world? The tampon tax is the value-added tax (vat) applied on tampons, pads, and menstrual cups. In Italy, where I am writing from, the VAT on female tampons was introduced in 1973 and, as for other goods and services, it has grown over time from 12% to 22%. To get you a better understanding, products such as truffles or collectors' stamps have a 10 percent preferential tax. Instead, goods such as milk, glasses, books, and posters for election campaigns are taxed at 4%. As of today, in Italy, women’s hygiene products, as well as diapers for babies, are subject to the standard rate of 22% because they are not considered essential goods.

 

Nonetheless, the tampon tax is not the same around the world. As you can see in the bar chart below, the rate on feminine hygiene products is 5 times higher in countries like Hungary and Sweden than in other European nations such as France, Poland, and the UK. 



Figure 3- source: Statista

 

Moreover, it is important to mention that many governments, under the impetus of feminist movements and associations, are moving towards the reduction or abolition of tampon tax with the aim of eliminating what has been labeled as “gender tax discrimination”.

 

 

 

Glimpses of hope: free period products are gaining traction 

Twenty is the number of places worldwide that provide free menstrual products. Of course, free period products alone won’t end period poverty. It is also essential for a functioning society to be able to provide education to its citizens, adequate water, sanitation facilities, and address harmful gender norms. Having said that, let’s now embrace the developments some places have experienced in the past couple of years. 

 

 

 

  1. Scotland 

Scotland became the first country to give free tampons and sanitary products to anyone. The effort was reached through the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) BillThis measure came into effect after the country was also the first to provide period products in school in 2017.

 

 

 

2. New Zealand

 

In February 2021, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that all schools in New Zealand would provide free tampons and pads in June. The measure came into effect as declared. 

 

 

 

3. New South Wales and 4. Victoria (Australia)

 

In 2018, the Australian government announced a plan to provide free pads and tampons in all public schools. Victoria was the first state in Australia state to implement that and help dissipate period stigma, and late on New South Wales followed suit.

 

 

 

5. Illinois; 6. Washington; 7. New York; 8. New Hampshire; 9. Virginia (United States)

 

New York City first the bill to provide public schools with free tampons and pads went into law in 2019.  Several other states did the same in 2021. Virginia passed Bill 232 in January 2020, and Washington another Bill in May 2021. In August 2021 Illinois Governor signed a Bill to ensure free period products be provided in college bathrooms and at shelters.

 

 

 

10. Île-de-France, France 

 

In France’s Île-de-France region the distribution of free organic period products in high schools started in September 2020. Here the government policy was championed by organizations.

 

 

 

Other places on the list: 

 

11. Kenya

12. South Africa 

13. Botswana 

14. Seoul, South Korea

15. Uganda

16. Zambia

17. British Columbia

18. Ontario

19. Nova Scotia

20. Prince Edward Island (Canada)

 
 

 

All in all, it can be said that even if menstruation and what turns the topic is still taboo in some contexts, huge developments have been made in the past few years. We now need to ask where progress can be made and why it has not happened yet. How great is the difference between developed and developing nations? How far can we go from here? 

 

 

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in foreign languages for business (during which I had the chance to study in Italy, in the UK, and the USA!), I work in the digital marketing field, and I enthusiastically contribute as a writer to different organizations, carefully putting special focus on gender quality and politics. During the past years, probably as I have been exploring new realities, I realized my passions lie in the field of public relations. Indeed, I’ll start a Master's degree in Strategic public relations in the US next year. I think I found out I was overly passionate about politics and women in politics by studying journalism and researching. Main interests: women in leadership / gender bias / international relations / online misinformation & disinformation. I truly believe that words are one of the most powerful means to advocate for women's equality. Also, I think my generation can bring awareness to important causes and act for meaningful changes.

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