Are We Any Closer to Ending Gender Tax in the UK?

Campaigners march through Parliament Square in May 2016 in protest at George Osbourne’s U-turn on pledging to remove the tampon tax in November 2015. The banners highlight that although Jaffa Cakes and other sweet foods are regarded by the government as basic and essential items that are not taxed, essential sanitary products such as tampons are viewed as non-essential luxury items and thus are taxed accordingly. Photo Source: Laura Coryton

Rachel McBride, Contributor. 

The average woman has her period for 2,535 days of her life. That’s nearly seven years of making sure you have a pad or tampon, finding a makeshift solution if you don’t, as well as managing the pain and discomfort associated with having your period.

The tampon tax has been called a ‘tax on gender’ because it so clearly puts women at an unfair financial disadvantage (even more of a kick in the teeth when you consider that in April 2017, men in the UK earned a staggering 18.4% more than women). It is also simply baffling that products such as Jaffa Cakes and, shop-bought pitta bread and alcoholic jellies are not taxed in the UK, as our government considers them “basic and essential items”, whereas sanitary products are viewed as “non-essential luxury items” and so are taxed accordingly. I would suggest that anyone who has ever experienced a period would agree that there is nothing luxurious about it.

There have been some efforts in the UK to address this ‘tax on gender’. A number of larger supermarkets including Waitrose, Tesco and The Co-op have volunteered to shoulder the illogical sales tax on sanitary products themselves, rather than pass the burden on to the consumer. As heart-warming as this is, it’s also quite obviously a prime public relations strategy for these supermarkets. However, we have to consider the impact on smaller retailers who simply cannot afford to do the same.

The UK government has also found an innovative way to approach the tampon tax through the Tampon Tax Fund. Unveiled by then Chancellor George Osborne in his 2015 Autumn Statement, the Tampon Tax Fund is an attempt to allocate the £15m raised from VAT on sanitary products toward projects that improve the lives of disadvantaged women and girls. The 2018/19 funding round, invites “charitable, benevolent and philanthropic organisations from across the UK, to apply for funding within one of three categories; violence against women and girls, mental health and wellbeing, and a general programme” . This well-intended move by the government has attracted its controversies and criticisms. Spending money on academic research, core costs and raising awareness is not permitted, whilst in 2017 it was revealed that £250,000 of the Tampon Tax Fund was given to Life, a charity which campaigns against abortion.

Research carried out by Plan International last year into UK period poverty found that one in ten girls were unable to afford sanitary wear and one in seven had to ask to borrow sanitary wear from a friend. More than one in ten girls had to improvise sanitary wear, including using toilet paper, due to the cost of towels and tampons. Pads and tampons are incredibly expensive, particularly considering that the average woman uses between 4 and 5 products each day they menstruate, and will have roughly 68 menstruating days per year. That’s approximately 73 products a year. It’s a huge expense, and girls in the UK who are living in poverty, or low-income households, inevitably struggle to afford them each month. Plan International UK found that 1 in 10 girls aged between 14 and 21 have been unable to afford sanitary products.

Eliminating the tampon tax in the UK would acknowledge that periods are a normal, natural bodily process, and certainly not a luxury. This would bring us closer to achieving gender equality, whilst teaching young girls that periods are empowering, not something we should be punished for. Elsewhere in the world, Kenya was the first country to abolish sales tax on menstrual products in 2004, Canada abolished tampon tax in mid-2015, and currently nine states in the US have specifically exempted feminine hygiene products from sales tax. As of January 2019, sanitary products will no longer be taxed in Australia and India announced it will stop the ‘blood tax’ in July 2018 (previously a hefty 12% tax).


2022 is perhaps the most important date anticipated by tampon tax campaigners, for there are two pieces of law that need to be organised in order for tampon tax to finally be axed. These are:

1) Brexit


2) Our tampon-tax-ending EU legislation (which has already been passed on an unprecedented scale by the European Parliament), both of which should be finalised by that magic year, 2022.

After controversy about the high tax rate on sanitary items many women consider essential, EU officials will pass the power to determine tariffs on consumer products back to the member states. However, the reform has been pushed back until 2022, meaning Britons will not feel the benefits of the change until after the EU exit date. EU member states will be able to tax a wide range of consumer goods at rates of “between five and zero percent” under the reforms. David Cameron negotiated an end to the controversial tax in March 2016, but it has taken nearly two years to bring the promise into law. Britons will have to wait much longer to stop paying the controversial tax as the new measures will now not be introduced until 2022, long after Brexit.

Hope For the Future?

I feel that progress is being made, but fear that it is moving at a snail’s pace, and in the UK we have fallen behind the current worldwide trend to reform gender tax. Personally, I cannot fathom why reducing sales tax to 0% on an essential female product is still so difficult to achieve.

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