Since the average age of 12 girls from all over the world start experiencing the same symptoms once a month: cramps, headache, backache. They get their periods. And they buy tampons.
In Italy a box of 14 pads costs approximately 4 euros. You can easily do the math: women buy an average of two packet per month, for twelve months a year, for about 40 years, and you will calculate the frightful amount of 3.840 euros at the very least. What terrifies me the most is that 22% of that sum goes directly in the government’s coffers since menstrual products are considered — and taxed — as a “luxury goods” just like bags, make-up and cars.
Italy’s tax system divides goods and services into three possible levels of sales taxation: 4% for primary goods, 10% for some categories of food and services like restaurants and hotel, and 22% for all the other cases. In this latter category fall sanitary products such as tampons, diapers and hygienic paper. But is it ethically (and practically) correct to exclude tampons from the group of primary goods? Of course no.
Women do not choose to have periods and they can not avoid it. Sanitary napkins allow them to keep living a normal social life without being exposed to episodes of shame or discomfort. This may seem obvious to many of us, but period poverty still represents an issue that needs to be addressed. The expression refers to a situation in which women do not have access to sanitary products and related services (toilets, clean water, pain killers) during their period due to economic constraints.
Even though the United Nations put menstrual hygiene among its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and Human Rights Watch recognized it as a human right, it is estimated that across the world 2.5 billion people still lack access to improved sanitation and many of them are women. A series of reports published by WaterAid and Unicef found out that in India 42% of girls do not use any hygienic protection during menstruations and 70% of mothers consider menstruation “dirty,” further perpetuating taboos. Several studies report that many girls in South Asia do not change pads in school and that more girls would attend classes if better facilities existed. In Afghanistan, only 12% of girls use sanitary pads.
Gisèle Thiombiano, Head of Terre des Hommes delegation in Burkina Faso, told me that many times Burkinabé women end up using old pieces of cloth which are then secretly washed and dried out under mattresses.
The problem is not limited to disadvantaged or developing areas. According to a study by Plan International UK, in 2017 one in ten of women and girls aged 14 to 21 have been unable to afford sanitary products in the United Kingdom, problem which caused more than 37.700 girls to miss school.
Datas about the scale of the phenomenon in Italy are not available, a further evidence of the widespread indifference toward menstrual hygiene.
Many countries already fought and won the battle for a reduction of taxes on tampons and related goods.
Kenya was the first country to completely eliminate VAT on period-related products in 2004 and got even further in 2015, getting rid of the import duties as well. Even though this helped low-income women, according to this report today kenyan girls still face monthly challenges, with 65% of them unable to afford sanitary pads.
Canada set the VAT on tampons at 0% in 2015, followed by Ireland in 2016, India in 2018 — after months of campaigning by activists — and Australia, where the complete elimination of the tampon tax will go into effect on January 1st, 2019.
In the United States 14 states out of 50 do not tax menstrual products: five of them do not have any sales tax at all, while the remaining seven specifically exempted feminine hygiene products.
Things are moving in Europe as well. In 2015 France reduced the VAT on tampons from an original 20% to 5.5% as a consequence of a tide of protests by several women’s associations. This aligns France with the United Kingdom, where menstrual products are taxed at 5%, currently the lowest rate possible under the EU’s VAT rules.
More recently, Spanish Finance Ministry María Jesús Montero of the Socialist Party (PSOE) said that taxes on feminine hygiene products will soon be cut from 10% to 4% since they are in all respects “basic-need products”.
Scotland took a step further becoming the first country to provide free sanitary products to students at schools, colleges and universities. This program will cost the government 5.2 million pounds and Alison Evison, COSLA President said: «While the primary aim is to ensure no young person misses out on their education through lack of access to sanitary products, it will also contribute to a more open conversation and reducing the unnecessary stigma associated with periods.»
In this global scenario, Italy seems to go against the flow. The Normal VAT — or IVA ordinaria, as Italians call it — grew constantly from 12% in 1973 reaching eventually the amount of 22% in 2013. Nothing has changed since that moment.
The issue of tampon tax has been addressed by two different political forces at different times, but up until now both attempts ended with no tangible results. In 2016 the left-wing party Possibile came up with a concrete legislative proposal to cut tampon tax to 4%, changing therefore the classification of female hygiene products from “luxury” to “primary” goods. «The law remained at the draft stage — said Beatrice Brignone, current Secretary of the party — but I’m not going to give up.» Every year Ms. Brignone presents the VAT reduction as a possible amendment to the Italian Budget law, but it never gets approved due to alleged lack of financial security. «Actually, what is really lacking is firm political will to do something serious about the problem» said the Secretary. Furthermore, Italian public opinion mocked the proposal with questionable jokes which only «pointed out how much work remains to be done in this country, both on the political and cultural level» Brignone affirmed.
The second political force to merely mention the words “tampon tax” in the legislative environment was the Five Star Movement, currently one of the two main forces in the Italian government. On September 16th President of Senate Hygiene and Health Committee Pierpaolo Silieri published a first draft of legislative proposal aimed to reduce VAT at 5% on feminine hygiene products. The text will be open to public discussion on Rousseau, the online platform of the Movement, for 60 days. After that, it will be discussed by the political groups and eventually brought to the attention of the Parliament. I tried to reach Mr. Silieri but got no answer.
Considering menstrual products as luxury goods should not be allowed. Italy has to deal with this and face the growing gap with the international standards.