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Holly-Ann Ladd and Chloe Howell-Jackson, co-founders of Peach BerlinPhotography Carys Huws

Residents and activists on the scrapping of Germany’s ‘luxury’ tampon tax

Following the country’s decision to eliminate the levy at the end of 2019, Dazed looks at its impact

TextBrit DawsonPhotographyCarys Huws

“There’s a taboo around periods because women were taught for centuries that our bodies are something to be ashamed of,” Kasia Zacharko, a Berlin-based photographer, says while discussing Germany’s landmark decision to finally scrap the tampon tax, which – until last year – was at the highest rate possible.

Despite being essential to half the population at some point in their lives, tampons were classed as ‘luxury’ items in the country and taxed at 19 per cent – significantly more than other ‘luxury’ goods, including caviar, truffles, and oil paintings, which had a reduced rate of just seven per cent.

Activists in the country led years of campaigns, urging the government to lower the taxation which, as a petition for the cause says, “constitutes fiscal discrimination against women based on their gender”. In November 2019, campaigners got their wish as the German parliament voted to scrap the levy, vowing to charge tampons at seven per cent VAT – the tax given to everyday household items – from January this year.

“It’s a little surreal,” journalist Jule Schulte – who presented her petition in parliament – tells Dazed. “(All the activists) watched the debate at the Bundestag together, and when we realised that it had worked – and that all of our hard work, and the hard work of those who came before us, had paid off – there was a lot of screaming. Seeing that little ‘seven’ on the price tag will surely give me a rush.”

Schulte was able to present her argument in parliament after her petition received over 80,000 signatures in four weeks. Speaking to politicians, the journalist explained why tampons should be taxed as essential items, calculating that people who menstruate do so for around 40 years, five days a month, meaning they spend six and a half years of their lives having a period. “It’s not a choice,” she asserted, adding that menstruation happens “regardless of whether one likes it or not”.

Tampon tax has been a contentious issue around the world in recent years, with Kenya becoming the first country to abolish VAT on menstrual products in 2004, followed by Canada over 10 years later in 2015. India followed suit in 2018, scrapping its 12 per cent tax after a year of campaigning by activists, while later that year Colombia found its five per cent rate unconstitutional, describing it as a “regressive tax that violated equality and equity”, and Australia repealed its 10 per cent tax after an 18-year controversy.

Rules in the EU are different. Since 1992, member states have had to apply a minimum 15 per cent VAT on consumer goods and services, though essential items could be taxed at five per cent. Before the UK left the Union last week (January 31), Ireland was the only EU country with a zero tax rate on menstrual items – this was implemented before 1991 so was allowed to stay the same – though the EU empowered the rest of the UK to scrap the tampon tax completely in 2018, with a zero rate due in 2022. It’s unclear when this will be implemented post-Brexit. Other EU countries, including Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and France have also reduced their rates for menstrual goods.

“This wasn’t just a political issue, but also a societal one. People didn’t want to concern themselves with the topic of menstruation” – Jule Schulte

Along with many others in Germany, Schulte believes that the tampon tax exemplifies society’s discomfort with women’s bodies outside of a sexualised context. “This wasn’t just a political issue, but also a societal one,” she explains. “People didn’t want to concern themselves with the topic of menstruation.”

Economic journalist Kiyo Doerrer agrees. “People don’t like talking about (menstruation),” she says. “When I first got my period, I was so ashamed that I was afraid of putting period products on the cashier’s desk and would always wait for a female shop assistant, which is very sad. Shame was instilled in me at such a young age.”

In protest against the stigma and the high rates of tax, The Female Company – which sells organic sanitary products – launched The Tampon Book, which the company’s PR manager Amelie Göckel describes as “a book that, besides 46 insightful pages about menstruation, hides 15 organic tampons in its back. Why? Because books are only taxed at seven per cent”. Released in spring 2019, the first edition sold out in a day and a half.

“The reactions were absolutely amazing,” Göckel tells Dazed. “We sent 100 books into the Bundestag and finally got heard. Several parties invited us to talk about the tax, and not even one year later it was reduced for almost all period products within Germany.” When asked if she thinks the scrapping of the tampon tax is a success for women’s rights in the country, Göckel exclaims: “Most definitely! I think Germany’s on a very good path regarding women’s rights and gender equality – but there’s still things that we, as women, have to fight for.” 

“It’s a step in the right direction,” adds Doerrer, “but it’s not big enough.”  Jonas Wolfram, scientific associate in Germany’s parliament, believes that bigger steps will only be able to be taken if there’s more gender diversity within the government. “Most lawmakers are actually men,” he explains, “so they didn’t see the problem (with the tampon tax) because they don’t need these products. It’s a textbook example of diversity or gender considerations not being present in decision-making.”

As well as a lack of women in positions of power, education about periods and the so-called ‘pink tax’ is limited, especially for men. “I’ve been having conversations with a few men about (the tampon tax) and they had no idea,” says Holly-Ann Ladd, co-founder of Peach Berlin – a female-focused creative agency and production studio – “it’s not something they think about at all. We need to make sure everyone is aware of the troubles it’s causing for women, especially for vulnerable women or those who don’t have as much money.”

“For the women in vulnerable situations who can’t afford sanitary products, this won’t change anything for them, so I think it’s important that we focus on those people while celebrating this” – Chloe Howell-Jackson

For Ladd’s business partner, Chloe Howell-Jackson, period poverty was also an important reason to scrap the 19 per cent tax rate on menstrual products. “Reducing the tax means that these products will be more affordable, but it’s only going to affect the people who can afford them anyway,” she tells Dazed. “For the women in vulnerable situations who can’t afford sanitary products, this won’t change anything for them, so I think it’s important that we focus on those people while celebrating this.”

According to news platform DW, in 2015, poverty in Germany was at its highest since the country’s reunification in 1990, with around 12.5 million residents classified as poor. With tampons being taxed at the highest rate, those already struggling were ‘priced out’ of buying sanitary items, leading to period poverty. This isn’t just a problem in Germany, period poverty affects millions of menstruating people around the world, with 49 per cent of girls in the UK having missed at least one day of school because of it.

“People who get their period can’t choose if they want it or not,” Berlin-based designer and creative technologist Tabitha Swanson asserts. “It’s important that people are able to live their lives without the fear of not having access to hygiene products.”

Multi-hyphenate artist Cassiane Lawrence blames capitalism. “The people in control of taxes (only care about) how they can make money, not what is beneficial to our society, and for women and men in general. They look out for the betterment of themselves and putting money in their pockets, as opposed to the betterment of our communities.”

Though capitalism seems to be here to stay, activists continue to work towards eradicating the stigma and shame surrounding periods. “The most important thing is to just talk about it,” explains Berlin-based stylist and DJ, Olive Duran. “We need to look at the education systems again and make sure that this is something that both guys and girls are aware of. Girls are often afraid and embarrassed to talk about these things because it’s not normalised in school, and because of the way boys or men make them feel – ultimately it comes down to education for everyone.” 

Though there’s still a huge amount of work to be done when it comes to destigmatising menstruation, and erasing period poverty, Schulte is proud of what activists’ long-fought campaigns achieved with the tampon tax. “(Author and director) Ephraim Kishon once said: ‘The mills of justice grind slowly but surely.’ I think this reduction is the product of many steps that had to be taken beforehand, and there are so, so many steps that still have to be taken before we hit equality. Menstruation remains taboo in most parts of society, and while this may have helped to drag it into the limelight a little bit more, there’s still a very long way to go.”