Jaffa cakes and edible cake decorations are just some of the products that are VAT free in Britain, and yet tampons and sanitary towels are still subject to a 5% VAT rate. Products that are necessary for the majority of women and trans men, who menstruate physically, are taxed as a luxury item would be. The tragic result of this is that women and families with low incomes simply cannot afford enough sanitary products, if any at all.
Regardless of the tax, those with the lowest incomes may still not be able to purchase these products that are so essential in order to function normally whilst menstruating. Studies undertaken by Plan International UK, a children’s charity, showed that 10% of teenage girls had been unable to afford period products at some point, and an even higher percentage had resorted to borrowing products from a friend at some point due to the cost of sanitary towels and tampons.
Further studies conducted by Always have even showed us that those who experience this issue are more likely to suffer from mental health issues and low self-confidence. The phrase ‘period poverty’ is one that has surfaced in recent years, and with statistics like this, it’s evident that this is a very real issue for girls and women across the UK.
Because sanitary towels and tampons are unavailable to many due to their expense, their alternative option is to use items such as toilet tissue as a makeshift towel, which is much less hygienic, more uncomfortable, and nowhere near as effective as sanitary products. It’s no wonder that a reported 137,700 girls in the UK alone missed school in 2017 as they were menstruating but could not afford tampons or towels.
We pay over £9000 in tuition fees per annum on top of rent and living costs, meaning very few students are likely to have vast amounts of disposable income
Whilst period poverty may affect those of all ages, teenagers and young adults are more likely to be unable to afford sanitary products, and university students may be particularly affected by this issue due to the financial stresses of higher education.
Although not everyone at university will be from a low-income family, not all students take up employment, and those who do are likely to be on low wages. It is a terrible fact that employed female students are still earning less than employed male students, as shown by a 2015 study conducted by Endsleigh. It is also important to bear in mind that we pay over £9000 in tuition fees per annum on top of rent and living costs, meaning very few students are likely to have vast amounts of disposable income. So when the average cost of towels and tampons is £13 a month, it’s no wonder many that are in education struggle to afford these products.
The last thing students should have to be worrying about is whether or not they will be able to afford pads or tampons, and no one should have to miss out on their education because they don’t have access to essential sanitary products. It’s clearly time that action is taken to end period poverty, and this begins by ensuring that period products are freely available to those who need them.
Whilst there have not yet been any national initiatives in England to ensure everybody has free access to period products, there is still a very public discourse regarding the matter, and earlier this year Scotland became the first country to begin offering free sanitary towels and tampons to all students as part of a £5.2 million scheme to end period poverty.
For students at Sussex University there are free sanitary products available here on campus; every Wednesday from 12pm-2pm, free Mooncups and Natracare tampons and towels can be collected from the Falmer House reception. Seeing as supply is limited, products will be given out on a first come first served basis, however if you are struggling to afford sanitary products then this is a great way to get your hands on some. As well as this, period products that you can purchase from on campus shops are not sold for profit, meaning that they are more affordable.
If this trend continues eventually all students who require them will have access to sanitary products, and perhaps this will lead on to period products being freely available to everybody in order to help end period poverty.
Menstruation is not something anyone chooses to go through, so no one should have to make the choice between buying food and other necessities over sanitary products. It is a great injustice that those who menstruate may not be able to live their lives to the fullest as a result of not being able to afford sanitary products. So whilst action is being taken to combat the issue, it’s time for a large-scale initiative to be put in place to ensure that period poverty finally becomes a thing of the past.
For free sanitary products visit the student union in Falmer House on Wednesdays 12-2pm to keep or donate to those less fortunate