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Women in the UK: We’re challenging the period taboo

By Hoe I Yune, Mar 04, 2021

International Women’s Day (IWD) takes place on 8 March every year. It’s a time to reflect on women’s achievements, while shining a spotlight on the gaps in our pursuit of gender equality. Last March, we commemorated the occasion by speaking with women in Japan, India, America, and South Korea on issues such as educated women struggling to balance parenting and careers, forgoing careers to shoulder household responsibilities, fighting for reproductive rights, and beauty standards.

Some may resonate and others might feel removed but it is important that we stay aware, so that we can shape a more inclusive future. This 2021, the theme “Choose to Challenge” brings attention to how we can all play a part and call out gender bias. We celebrate this with a series titled “What I’m Choosing to Challenge in My Country”.

We kick off by looking at something nearly half the world’s population experience, yet is not talked about enough: periods.

Up until this year, people who menstruate in the United Kingdom (UK) had to pay a 5 per cent value-added tampon tax on period products such as tampons and pads. Nevermind that having periods is something that we literally cannot control.

Finally on 1 January, the UK government confirmed that tampon tax has finally been scrapped, and Scotland also recently approved a bill to make period products free — a world first. 

We speak with 27-year-old British activist Laura Coryton on how she fought to get rid of the tampon tax and continues to challenge the period taboo as a wider movement. Laura started the Stop Taxing Periods campaign as a student in 2014, hand-delivered the petition of over 320,000 signatures to a government office in 2016, and has since joined the Government Equalities Office’s Period Poverty Task Force and co-founded social enterprise Sex Ed Matters. The first step was abolishing taxation laws that penalised women, but the big picture goal is to overcome the perpetuation of embarrassment and shame around periods. It’s the unspoken shame that has us not asking for help regarding our health when we need it, hiding period products up our sleeves as we beeline for the office washroom, and using euphemisms like “time of the month” and “Aunt Flo”. 

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My journey to challenge period taboo began when I was a university student in 2014. 

Up until January 2021, we had to pay 5 per cent tax for period products because they were categorised as non-essential goods. 

It is shocking because activities such as maintaining private helicopters, eating exotic crocodile and kangaroo meats, and playing bingo are all considered “essential” and therefore enjoy a 0 per cent tax rate. 

I couldn’t believe how we were being taxed for something biological and out of our control. The government never publicly acknowledged why the tax was first implemented but it was introduced in 1973 when there were hardly any female politicians. Men were the ones making the law and the needs of women were overlooked.

I realised that it’s an example of gender bias and sends a subliminal message that women should be silent about our bodies and not take up room in the public sphere. It was probably in some way reinforced by the period taboo — periods being something difficult for us to talk about. That made me really angry and inspired me to start doing something about it. 

I started the Stop Taxing Periods campaign to fight against the “luxury tax” imposed on period products.

I was inspired by Caroline Criado-Perez’s petition to keep Jane Austen on £10 notes because she was the only woman to appear on our banknotes besides the Queen.

I was inspired by Caroline Criado-Perez’s petition to keep Jane Austen on £10 notes because she was the only woman to appear on our banknotes besides the Queen.

Whenever we talk about striving towards gender equality, we talk about getting girls an education, closing the gender pay gap and creating opportunities for women to hold leadership positions at work. But if girls and women aren’t first empowered to ask for help in taking care of their bodies, it hinders them from developing to the best of their abilities.

One of the most obvious repercussions of the period taboo is period poverty. Period poverty refers to when people who menstruate have to miss school due to a lack of supplies or facilities to manage their period; it refers to people who menstruate suffering in silence or enduring teasing and shaming; it refers to girls and women having a lack of awareness on how their bodies work.

According to a survey by children’s charity Plan International UK in 2017*, nearly half of girls in the UK feel embarrassed by their period and missed an entire day of school because of their period. In a more recent survey conducted in 2020, it was found that a third of girls felt too embarrassed to seek out free products, even though the government made period products freely available in schools across the country the year before.

When there is a societal issue impacting a group of people, it is not just the onus of the worstly affected people to fight it — we all need to collectively come together. Just because we can afford period products doesn’t mean we should avoid the plight of others who can’t. Just because we’re not the worst off doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about periods. 
 

I thought if we start talking about periods in our homes and social circles, then it’ll eventually open up a larger conversation that will help break the sexist belief that issues faced by women don’t matter. 

When you have enough people coming together, it becomes harder for politicians to ignore it, even if they don’t act on it immediately.

I started the campaign on change.org and social media. When I shared the petition with them, my friends were really excited about it and helped share it through word of mouth and on Facebook. We reached 1,000 signatures in a week, which made me think we were onto something.

A friend’s mum said, “Laura, I really like your petition because I used to campaign for this when I was your age.” The tax was originally at 17.5 per cent in 1973 until it was reduced in 2000.That is how long the voices of women had been ignored. Pockets of campaigners exist but what mobilised the movement in recent years is having the Internet to unify us. 
 

When we collected about 50,000 signatures, my friends and I organised our first in-person campaigns in universities across the country. We had people coming into London on late night coaches from Scotland, and we would discuss how to influence government policies.

When we collected about 50,000 signatures, my friends and I organised our first in-person campaigns in universities across the country. We had people coming into London on late night coaches from Scotland, and we would discuss how to influence government policies.

We eventually got 320,000 signatures.

We eventually got 320,000 signatures.

I think to fight the period taboo, you need social and systemic change. There’s empowering women to speak up, there’s listening to women, and there’s driving change at the top. 
 

As the Stop Taxing Periods campaign gained more momentum, I became increasingly committed towards getting the attention of politicians to scrap the 5 per cent tax on period products. When I first contacted my local politician, it took him nearly four months for him to respond and he was unsupportive. 

We saw real political interest in 2016 — in the heat of the Brexit debate. The European parliament has oversight for all the taxes, which meant that we couldn’t axe the tampon tax in the UK until the European parliament agreed to it. In its history, European parliament had never once amended a country’s tax for one single item before.

A politician in the “leave” Brexit camp brought up our campaign and used his support for it as an excuse for why the UK should take charge of its own taxation laws and leave the European Union.

It was terrible because this very politician described paid maternity leave as “lunacy” and doesn’t strike me as someone with pro-feminist motives at all. I felt like my campaign was used as a political tool and couldn’t do anything about it.

I wanted to keep the Stop Taxing Periods campaign bipartisan. It should be important to everyone and transcend political agendas.

The upside was that we got more coverage from national newspapers and eventually, then prime minister David Cameron who represented the “remain” Brexit camp declared he wanted to end tampon tax as well and brought it forward before European parliament.

In a historical moment, the entire European parliament voted unanimously to start the regulatory process to allow any EU country to abolish tampon tax. 
 

Our government committed to axing the tampon tax, although the UK leaving the EU stalled the legislative change from 2016 to the start of this year. In between, a Tampon Tax Fund was set up to donate the money raised towards charities supporting disadvantaged women and girls. 

I spoke about the tampon tax to European parliament to help make the case for removing the “luxury” tax. The chamber is such a hyper masculinsed environment that politicians struggled to say the word “period” or “tampon”. Getting the Chancellor of the Exchequer to say the word “tampon” remain one of the highlights of my life!

I spoke about the tampon tax to European parliament to help make the case for removing the “luxury” tax. The chamber is such a hyper masculinsed environment that politicians struggled to say the word “period” or “tampon”. Getting the Chancellor of the Exchequer to say the word “tampon” remain one of the highlights of my life!

It took some time before the 2016 promise was fulfilled on January 1, 2021. The wait in between was frustrating but along with other campaigners, we kept talking and campaigning.

It took some time before the 2016 promise was fulfilled on January 1, 2021. The wait in between was frustrating but along with other campaigners, we kept talking and campaigning.

The fight to abolish the tampon tax wasn’t something unique to the UK or Europe. I got to know others who started sister campaigns in Australia, Canada, Malaysia, and America. 

A politician in Scotland named Monica Lennon put together pioneering policies for period poverty. That led to Scotland being the first country in the world to provide free period products to everybody. Tampons and sanitary pads are available at designated public places such as community centres, youth clubs, and pharmacies.

Right now in the rest of the UK, it’s only free in schools, colleges, and hospitals, which makes it accessible to school girls but hardly anyone else. Gabby Edlin, founder of charitable organisation Bloody Good Period, is advocating for the rest of the UK to follow in Scotland’s footsteps.

Amika George who launched the Free Periods campaign is pushing for an end to period poverty by raising awareness on how schools and colleges can opt-in for the government free period products scheme.

Along a similar vein, Binti Period is a charity providing menstrual products to people who menstruate in the UK, India, and America. 
 

It is empowering to hear politicians say words like “period” and “tampon” because I think it sends a strong message to everyone that we should be comfortable with using these words in everyday conversation.

Fostering openness is key. It empowers people to dispel shame and stigma by speaking up.

You don’t necessarily have to be positive about periods all the time. But if you’re experiencing health problems, you should always feel like you are able to speak up about them so they can be solved. You should be able to talk to someone if you’re facing access issues, so that you receive the products that you need.

All these can only be done through sex education, including men in the conversation, and rethinking the language we use.
 

Through campaigning in schools to remove the tampon tax, I realised how sex education wasn’t very well regulated. This led to periods being discussed in a dismissive or uninformative way.

When we normalise period pains and think people who menstruate are expected to just suck it up, we discount suffering and risk leaving underlying medical conditions like endometriosis being undetected or untreated. 

A new curriculum came into effect last September. This covers consent, LGBTQIA+ rights, and periods. But we understand that it can be overwhelming for teachers who themselves haven’t been given enough guidance and support. So in 2019, my sister Julia and I co-founded Sex Ed Matters, a social enterprise tackling sex and relationship taboos in UK schools.

We run Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) talks and workshops for teachers and students alike, and recently created toolkits on periods and menopause to serve as resources. We want to be able to empower girls to talk about it with guy friends, dads, and brothers – anyone. 
 

To weave conversations about periods into the fabric of normalcy, it can’t be with half the population being squeamish or ignorant about them. 
 

Growing up, I remember boys being told to leave the room while us girls learned about our periods in a sexual health class, but it’s so important that men and boys are included in the conversation. I’ve been on the receiving end of misogynistic online trolling and at first, the backlash was overwhelming. But I realised these trolls are probably not even buying period products and therefore not paying for the tampon tax. 
 

Shame and stigma start from young and when you grow up thinking it’s something you can only talk about in private, needs go unaddressed.

Another barrier in breaking the period taboo is language. When language feeds into the idea of periods being shameful, it can make it difficult for periods to be spoken about openly. 

I joined a government-led Period Poverty Task Force and together with other campaigners, educational charities, and period product organisation representatives, we’re putting together a glossary of terms for media outlets to adopt. 

We want to avoid using words like “sanitary” and “feminine hygiene”, which suggest periods are dirty and in need to be cleansed and purified. We want to normalise just saying “period products” and “menstrual products”. 
 

No one should be made to feel ashamed of their bodies.
 

Right to Left: Gabby of Bloody Good Period, Amika of Free Periods and I in front of the government buildings in Westminster.

Right to Left: Gabby of Bloody Good Period, Amika of Free Periods and I in front of the government buildings in Westminster.

Tackling the gender gap is such a massive issue, but if we each pick one issue and do our part, we can start a ripple effect. We can change narratives and it begins with you.

* The 2017 and the 2020 Plan International UK surveys involved 1,000 girls aged 14 to 21 in the UK. 

Photos provided by Laura Coryton. Find out more about the Stop Taxing Periods campaign here, and about the Sex Ed Matters social enterprise here

This is the first part of our six-part International Women’s Day series What I’m Choosing to Challenge in My Country. Check back next week for part two, in which we hear about the progress for trans rights in Malaysia. 

Writer’s Note:

My name is I Yune, and you can find me at @i_yune on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about learning to engage in social issues by having conversations with people around me about hot button topics such as J.K. Rowling’s trans tweets criticism and the Biden administration prioritising women’s rights. Honestly, I can’t claim to know everything and am bound to make mistakes and stand corrected, but I’d like to continue learning. My Dayre is where I attempt to make sense of my thoughts.

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