After a seven-year campaign, the UK finally scrapped its controversial 5% tax on period products as of Jan. 1, 2021. To reflect on the change, Global Citizen caught up with Laura Coryton, the young activist who took up the cause while at university to find out more about how she got the country and then parliament on board with the change, and what she is up to now.
“Maintaining a private helicopter, crocodile meat, and bingo” are all things that the UK deemed too essential to be taxed while still taxing period products as luxuries, activist Laura Coryton tells Global Citizen.
“That just seemed so wrong to me,” she continues. “It was the phrase ‘non-essential’ being applied to period products that I found so annoying. How are these products not essential?"
Luckily, Coryton, who is now 28 and runs a social enterprise delivering workshops to help schools provide a better sex and relationships curriculum, was annoyed enough to do something about it.
She joined other activists against period poverty in starting a campaign back in 2014. The UK officially eliminated the “tampon tax” as of Jan. 1, 2021. In doing so, the country joined Canada, India, Kenya, and several US states in scrapping a policy that served to make life just that bit more expensive for people who menstruate.
The breakthrough had come in March 2020 when the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak had said he would prioritise removing the 5% value-added tax (VAT) to the cost of period products like tampons, pads, and menstrual cups. His decision meant that these products would no longer be classed as “luxury” or “non-essential” and instead join the likes of basic foodstuffs that don’t get taxed.
A major component of getting the law changed was the “End Tampon Tax” petition started by Coryton on Change.org when she was a student. It went on to garner over 300,000 signatures thanks to her awareness raising. It was eventually picked up by Labour MPs Stella Creasy, Paula Sherriff, and Dawn Primarolo who championed the change in parliament.
It was a Buzzfeed article sent by a housemate that inspired Coryton, she says. “It was about the weird and wacky things that the UK does or doesn’t add VAT to. And probably in a bid to avoid working on my dissertation, I started to do more research.”
“These rules came in 1973 when there were hardly any female MPs, people who menstruate just weren’t in the room when these rules were imposed,” Coryton continues. (Hence the sometimes strange and archaic items like crocodile meat and aircraft maintenance that end up avoiding VAT.)
“I began reflecting on the fact that I had never even heard of this, and the fact that we generally don’t talk about period products or periods. Especially in 2014, it was considered embarrassing to talk about, it wasn’t in the news,” she adds.
Coryton says she initially didn’t think the petition would get many signatures, but it tapped into something — a broader conversation about period poverty was taking place. Since then there have been other wins — such as Amika George’s campaign to get period products in schools that began in 2017, leading to the government to launch a scheme for schools in England to order products for free in 2020.
Coryton became passionate about raising awareness, seeking signatures up and down the country and creating local campaign groups. For example she found a network of campaigners against period poverty in Scotland, who were keen to sign up. “We got so many signatures from Scotland,” she says.
The country has since gone to become the first in the world to make period products free and publicly available.
But it was a long road to get to that point. “It took about a year before any parliamentarians really took note of it. I emailed my local MP at first and he wrote back three months later, essentially saying that he didn’t care,” Coryton continued. Once the petition picked up more signatures — parliament had to take notice.
A step in the right direction came in 2016 when the government decided to keep the tax but divert the money into a “Tampon Tax Fund” that provided funding for women's charities. “That was good, but I was really worried that they would just think ‘jobs done’ and not actually look at removing the tax,” Coryton said.
Coryton says there is both a financial reason and a “narrative-based” reason the tax needed to go.
“It might not seem that much, 5%, but it does make a difference over time to anyone struggling to afford these products. And it makes quite a big difference to products that are more expensive too, like moon cups,” she explains.
“The tampon tax campaign also helped reduce period stigma, too. If Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak can talk about period products in the House of Commons, then other people can talk about periods,” Coryton continues.
Coryton believes that shame about periods and the idea of what is appropriate to talk about in the public sphere is part of what allowed the unfair tax to go on for so long.
“It helped open the door to more campaigning on this. Wales has period products for free in schools, Scotland has made them publicly available. And the campaign has been picked up by other countries around the world, too. It’s easier for other people in other countries to argue that if one country has done it, why can’t we?”
As part of her work at the social enterprise she founded, Sex Ed Matters, Coryton spends a lot of time giving workshops in schools.
The organisation teaches the newer elements of the Relationships and Sex Ed curriculum (RSE), that teachers have yet to receive much training in — things like consent, LGBTQ+ rights.
She says she has found that a lack of education around periods, as well as period poverty, is a widespread problem.
Even if a child comes from a family who can afford the products, she has found there is still stigma and embarrassment around asking for them — perhaps if their parents are uncomfortable about it, or they have a single dad as their primary caregiver — Coryton explains. This means girls can end up skipping school.
“We do workshops in state schools mostly, but I did one workshop in a private school and the teacher told me a girl had been found crying because she had got her period and didn’t know what it was and didn’t have products,” she continued.
She argues that information about menstruation should be taught openly and confidently to all students, “not separating girls from boys to talk about it secretly which is what happened when I grew up” she adds.
What about now, given much has changed in a few short years in terms of how issues around periods are covered in the media? “There is still some stigma, but it’s better than it was. I am optimistic about periods and period poverty as a topic going forward,” Coryton says.
“I think online politics is really interesting in that it gives people that power to push for change,” she says, telling the story of a family friend’s mum who told her she liked the Stop Tampon Tax campaign because she had also campaigned to end tampon tax when she was in her early twenties, too.
“That made me really realise how many generations have campaigned for this but didn’t have the internet, so couldn’t as easily get 300,000 people signing a petition and really show how many people wanted it.”