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Bloody Awful: The 'Tampon Tax' and the 'M Word'

04/11/2015 11:43 GMT | Updated 04/11/2016 09:12 GMT

Last week, a motion to abolish the 5% tax on sanitary products was rejected by the House of Commons at 305 votes to 287. The idea to abolish the 5% tax rate came from Labour MP Paula Sheriff who rightly said that by implementing such a tax upon female hygiene products implies that they are a luxury rather than a necessity. Hygiene products for men such as razors, on the other hand, are of course a basic human right and remain untaxed. Personally, I don't see my biological functions as luxurious but hey, what do I know? Please male MPs tell me more! Mr Cameron attempted to defend the outcome of the vote by suggesting that because taxation guidelines are decided by the EU, they would be difficult to overthrow. If Mr Cameron really cared about representing the views of the electorate, then I'm certain he wouldn't accept this defeat so readily considering the 252,000 signatures on one Change.org petition alone. Or perhaps it's just another tactic to encourage more women to vote against staying in the EU - someone get Labour on the phone and get that pink bus out of storage! Surprisingly, this article isn't just an opportunity for me to use period related puns as much as possible because this is neither the time nor the month. Rather it is to suggest that the decision to reject the abolishment of so called 'Tampon Tax' is not only a fiscal issue but it also raises concerns about female representation in parliament and the distorted and outdated way that society views menstruation.

To my delight, it has been reported that Labour MP for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, refused to respond to any Tory MP interjections unless they directly referred to tampons and sanitary towels rather than the more evasive term 'sanitary products'. I would suggest that Creasy also lobbies against tampon adverts that condescendingly refer to periods as 'a visit from Mother Nature' in her next campaign. This willingness to evade the reality of what constitutes a period is something which many women have to experience. We are encouraged to be discreet so as not to corrupt the delicate constitution of our male counterparts- even my best male friend recoils in embarrassment at the mention of period pains. I've heard men moan countless times about how women get 'special treatment' because of PMS, so, frankly, I'm surprised the abolishment wasn't more popular. Sanitary products are required for us to function in our daily lives, if you're concerned about 'special treatment' then the abolishment of the tax would surely work in your favour. I get it, talking about menstruation isn't exactly my favourite conversation starter either, but I can promise you bleeding from my womb is even less of a barrel of laughs. Periods are uncomfortable enough without having to spend 3 or more days denying their existence. I'm not suggesting that this embarrassment surrounding periods is entirely perpetuated by men; I still insist on referring to tampons as 'stuff' in front of male family members but it does seem mainly to be for their benefit. I'm also not suggesting that we start outlining each other's menstrual flow over Sunday lunch, but let's start some kind of conversation about periods which isn't permeated by discretion and shame.

So how do we make this happen? Clearly, getting more women involved in the debate would help. Perhaps I'm being presumptuous here but I think I'm more of an expert in this field than my local male MP (congratulations Guy Opperman, for maintaining your track record of never representing my views to date). In fact MP Jess Phillips attributes the existence of the tax to the fact that most of the members in the House of Commons don't have wombs and it's easy to see her point. As a Corbynite, I was particularly disappointed to see a lack of women representing Labour in the more prominent roles in his shadow cabinet and this trend extends to parliament in general. Only 191 MPs out of a total of 650 are female and according to the trusty Internet, this means that the presence of women is at an all time high at 29%. Excuse me if I don't get out my party hat... Clearly, we cannot depend upon the male dominated environment that is the House of Commons to represent us. That's not to suggest that men cannot campaign for women's rights, but an improvement in equality in the political sphere would do great things for an awareness of concerns which primarily affect women.

For most of us, this tax has never really been a financial issue, yet for the women who are homeless or rely on foodbanks to survive, the choice between a meal and a sanitary pad makes sanitary products a comfort they cannot afford to indulge in. In a video by the organisation, The Homeless Period, a woman anonymously recounts how she would rip up an old piece of cloth to use as protection. This story reminded me of my experience working in a rural Maasai community in Kenya last year. Our project focused on distributing re-usable sanitary pads to women and girls in the community. I was shocked when the nurse informed me that girls can miss about three months of their schooling due to their periods and that like the woman in the video, many women use an old cloth which often leads to infection. The majority of these women had never seen a tampon before and it was clear that sanitary products would completely revolutionise their daily lives.

It is for these women that sanitation has become an unaffordable luxury. For the rest of us, it is the principle which is the problematic outcome of this week's disappointing result. It tells us that the rhetoric of discretion and embarrassment that surrounds menstruation doesn't show many signs of being eradicated any time soon. Secondly, it sadly demonstrates that no matter how loud our female MPs shout out for equality and basic rights for women, their limited presence still isn't enough. Because let's face it lads, they're probably just on their periods right?