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Still a long way to go, period



On 3 October 2018, the states and territories of Australia put an end to an eighteen year campaign by agreeing to remove the goods and services tax (GST) from menstrual products. Items like condoms and Viagra have been exempt from the GST since its implementation in 2000, but there has been an ongoing fight to apply this same exemption for items like pads and tampons. It has been raised and shut down a number of times since, including once in 2018. 

Tampon on white background (Max pixel)

It is, as Senator Janet Rice stated in 2015, ‘a sexist and unfair tax’, and it is interesting to note that many of the politicians opposed to scrapping the tax have been cisgender men. In March 2018, Tony Abbott commented that removing the tax would be caving into ‘political correctness’, and Tanya Plibersek’s response, ‘only a bunch of blokes sitting around a table would come to the conclusion that sanitary pads are anything but an essential good,’ was a sentiment that many in Australia could agree with.

The taxing of menstrual items is not only an issue in Australia, but also in numerous countries around the world. Period poverty is a very real phenomenon that affects a whole range of menstruators, including asylum seekers, those who are homeless, live in third world countries and in rural communities, and who are escaping from domestic violence.

A survey conducted in 2017 by Plan International UK found that one in ten girls or women aged 14 to 21 in Britain cannot afford sanitary items. There have been pushes for the adoption of reusable menstrual products like luna cups, washable cloth pads and period underwear, but many of these products are still expensive at the outset, and presume the user has access to clean water and washing facilities.

Uteruses, and in particular, periods, have long been used against menstruators — to malign, to marginalise, to make us feel lesser than. In ancient Greece, it was thought that the uterus (hysterika) was able to travel throughout the body, and that a wandering uterus was a sign of mental illness. The word hysteria has been used since then to minimise the severity of women’s mental health issues. Indeed, the term ‘hysterical neurosis was used as late as the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association. Pliny the Elder thought that a menstrual blood could kill insects, blunt the edge of a razor, cause whirlwinds and other natural disasters.

This is a phenomenon that can be seen in a variety of cultures and religions. Shinto anyone who is on their period in Japan are not allowed to step foot into temples, and in the Bible, Leviticus states that menstruators are unclean, and therefore make everything they touch unclean. A 21-year-old Nepalese woman died in early 2018 as a result of a practice called chhaupadi, which has strong links to the Hindu religion. Chhaupadi dictates that women must be banished to sleep in huts while they are on their periods, and it is believed that this woman died as a result of smoke inhalation when she lit a fire to keep herself warm through the night.


"We’re all adults, and we all know it happens, but for some reason I still feel the need to hide it, to make the word or the event more palatable to those around me. I don’t really like to talk about period cramps, even though it’s no different to having a cramp in any other part of my body at any other time of the month."


Generally speaking, about half of the world’s population experience periods, but we seem to be afraid of talking about them. Maybe it’s because we think that talking about the pain associated with them makes us weak, that it’s just another thing we complain about, that it means other people won’t take us seriously. This attitude in particular contributes to how women’s pain is ignored and dismissed, especially by male health professionals.

Clue, alongside The International Women’s Health Coalition, conducted a study in 2015 on period perceptions around the world, with 90,000 respondents. It found euphemisms for periods in ten languages, and that 61% (Bangladesh and Qatar) to 96% (Czech Republic) of women use such euphemisms when talking about them.

Even today, I feel strange saying the word ‘period’ at work. I still disguise it under euphemisms — my favourite one at the moment is ‘I’m having a demon baby’. I do this even though I know most of my friends are fine with me talking about my period. We’re all adults, and we all know it happens, but for some reason I still feel the need to hide it, to make the word or the event more palatable to those around me. I don’t really like to talk about period cramps, even though it’s no different to having a cramp in any other part of my body at any other time of the month. Maybe it’s because just the word ‘period’ conjures up the visceral image of blood, spilling, gushing, forcefully ejecting itself out of menstruator’s bodies with apparently little to no self-control.

It’s time to turn these stereotypes and connotations on their heads.

Getting rid of the tax on menstrual products might not save menstruators a ridiculous amount of money each year, but it is a law that is long overdue, and one that should not have needed to exist in the first place — they should have been exempt from GST from the outset. But in saying so, the scrapping of the tax also brings these sorts of important issues to the fore. Labor has recently promised it will be making tampons and pads free in Victorian government schools. Perhaps these are signs that maybe we are finally being heard, but the fact that this progress has been so many years in the making is also a sign of how far we have yet to go.


Yen-Rong WongYen-Rong Wong is a Brisbane-based writer, and the founding editor of Pencilled In, a literary magazine dedicated to showcasing the work of Asian Australian artists.


Main image: Tampon on white background (Max Pixel)

Topic tags: Yen-Rong Wong, tampon tax, menstruation, auspol



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Existing comments

Society needs to grow up, we need to educate our boys about women's bodies, which is happening now. Some men still can't handle a woman feeding her baby, but many of these same men watch porn, make dirty jokes about women and touch them up. So it's not because they are proper. Our society must learn that these things are OK to speak about. I think we have grown up a lot in the last 20 years, but we have a way to go.

Cate | 16 November 2018  

Grown up perhaps, Cate, but why abandon good taste in public declaration of private matters, such as in this article, as evidence of that? I am sure that most would support the removal of all taxes on essential commodities in any allegedly advanced and well to do society.

A bloke - surprisingly? | 19 November 2018  

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