Many countries charge women for the simple biological process of menstruation. In the United States, 36 out of 50 states have some kind of tax on tampons, pads, and other menstrual products. It is easy to simplify tampon taxes down to just an issue of sexism, but if you are a woman who dares to menstruate while being poor, you will likely suffer more as a result of these taxes. In Australia, an ongoing movement to abolish the tax on tampons has recently succeeded.

On October 3rd, 2018, Australian officials announced that, beginning in January 2019, tampons and sanitary products will no longer be subject to taxation. This new measure will overturn part of a Goods and Services Tax (GST), which included a 10% rate on tampons and pads. There have been protests against this tax since its implementation; many people believed that it was sexist and that it failed to recognize tampons as an essential item.

It is understandable that tampons and pads have not been classified as health items, because they are usually seen as hygiene items. In the debate over the Australian GST, some argued that items that did not directly prevent disease should be subject to taxation. Michael Wooldridge, who was the Australian health minister in 2000 when the GST was implemented, argued along these lines in defense of the tax. While explaining that only disease-preventing products should remain tax-free, Wooldridge quipped that he “wasn’t aware that menstruation was an illness [that had to be prevented].” While Wooldridge was not technically incorrect in this assertion, he greatly underestimated the necessity of sanitary products. Half of the world’s population experiences menstruation in their lifetime, and it is not something that can be dealt with in a dignified and comfortable way without access to proper hygiene products.

The controversy surrounding the taxation of tampons and pads does not stop at discrimination against all women, as it disproportionately affects low-income and homeless women. Even before taxation, sanitary products are not cheap. According to the CVS website, a box of 34 Tampax tampons costs nearly ten dollars. This may not seem like a lot of money, but to women living below the poverty line, ten dollars can be very significant. As Ohio Representative Brigid Kelly put it while discussing the taxation of sanitary products, “When you’re trying to figure out if you can give your kid milk money or if you have enough to get your own lunch, then it is impactful in a very significant way.”

Australian feminist Eleanor Robertson wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian in 2015 on the importance of class in the tampon tax debate. Her stance was that simply removing the tampon tax would not make a real difference in the lives of poor women. Robertson argued that because the poor “spend a higher proportion of their income on necessary goods,” any tax at all on products that can be classified as necessary will necessarily affect them more. Robertson believes that more women should acknowledge the pricing of sanitary products and how “reducing the cost of a pack of tampons by a few cents doesn’t do profoundly disadvantaged women many favours,” whereas “a more holistic assessment of how our tax system affects women” is necessary.

The recent policy change in Australia is a step in the direction of acknowledging the importance of access to sanitary products, but there is still a long way to go in annulling tax laws that disproportionately affect poor women. As we continue to debate taxes on tampons, we must ask ourselves this question: shouldn’t all human beings be entitled to the ability to maintain basic hygiene, regardless of gender or class?