The lat­est bat­tle in the fight for women’s rights: Men­strual eq­uity

▶ Law­mak­ers across the U.S. are cut­ting taxes on tam­pons ▶ “Our sales tax code is a re­flec­tion of what we value”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - Henry Gold­man, with Laura Ma­honey and Michael Bologna Edited by Allison Hoffman

When New York City Coun­cil­woman Julissa Fer­reras-Copeland told her ad­vis­ers she wanted to make fem­i­nine hy­giene prod­ucts free in pub­lic fa­cil­i­ties, they told her she risked be­ing for­ever as­so­ci­ated with women’s pe­ri­ods. She ig­nored their rec­om­men­da­tion that she back off the is­sue. “You can’t solve a prob­lem that no­body wants to talk about,” Fer­reras-Copeland says. “If we had to ask men to pay 25¢ for ev­ery square of toi­let pa­per, or if they went to the bath­room and found no toi­let pa­per, there would be an upris­ing.”

It turns out her po­lit­i­cal in­stincts were right. On June 21 she scored a unan­i­mous vote in fa­vor of pro­vid­ing tam­pons and san­i­tary pads at schools, foster homes, jails, and home­less shelters. The or­di­nance will serve about 300,000 stu­dents in New York City schools and an ad­di­tional 23,000 women liv­ing in shelters or in jail.

New York isn’t alone. Law­mak­ers in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., are con­sid­er­ing a give­away pro­gram, though it’s been tabled un­til the fall. Chicago’s City Coun­cil voted in March to drop mu­nic­i­pal sales taxes on fem­i­nine hy­giene prod­ucts by re­clas­si­fy­ing them as med­i­cal ap­pli­ances. “It’s a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for the U.S., this idea of men­strual eq­uity, and it’s be­ing driven by a lot of smart peo­ple rec­og­niz­ing the prob­lem work­ing to re­move the stig­mas at­tached to it,” says Jen­nifer Weiss-Wolf, vice pres­i­dent for de­velop- ment at New York Univer­sity’s Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice.

Bills lift­ing sales taxes on tam­pons and pads await gov­er­nors’ sig­na­tures in Con­necti­cut, Illinois, and New York. The Cal­i­for­nia State As­sem­bly passed a tax cut unan­i­mously in early June; the mea­sure awaits pas­sage in the state se­nate. “Our sales tax code is a re­flec­tion of what we value,” co-spon­sor Assem­bly­woman Cristina Gar­cia, a Demo­crat who rep­re­sents a district in eastern Los An­ge­les County, said be­fore the vote. “It’s time we start valu­ing women’s health.” The sales tax cut will cost the state about $20 mil­lion a year, re­ports the state Board of Equal­iza­tion.

Five states—Mary­land, Mas­sachusetts, Min­nesota, New Jer­sey, and Penn­syl­va­nia—al­ready ex­clude tam­pons and other hy­giene prod­ucts from sales taxes, the Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures says. Penn­syl­va­nia also ex­empts di­a­pers, wipes, toi­let pa­per, tooth­brushes, and tooth­paste. “We don’t tax food, we don’t tax the things that are es­sen­tial to the health and safety of peo­ple,” says Ali­son Weir, di­rec­tor of pol­icy, re­search, and anal­y­sis for the Na­tional Di­a­per Bank Net­work, a group that tracks sales taxes on hy­giene prod­ucts na­tion­ally. “Ev­ery lit­tle bit helps when you want to main­tain the health and wel­fare of the pop­u­la­tion.”

Canada sus­pended taxes on tam­pons and other hy­giene prod­ucts in July 2015. In March, the Euro­pean Union agreed to al­low mem­ber states to ex­clude fem­i­nine hy­giene prod­ucts from taxes on goods and ser­vices, partly in re­sponse to pres­sure from Bri­tish leader David Cameron be­fore the Brexit ref­er­en­dum. New York will spend at least $2.5 mil­lion a year on pads and tam­pons un­der the give­away pro­gram. Other ben­e­fits will partly off­set th­ese costs: In a pi­lot pro­gram, the city’s education depart­ment found that at­ten­dance in­creased at the High School for Arts and Busi­ness in Queens, to 92.4 per­cent from 90 per­cent, af­ter free san­i­tary prod­uct dis­pensers were in­stalled. “I wish it were eas­ier to ac­cess prod­ucts at my school,” Lineyah Mitchell, who grad­u­ated in June from Brook­lyn Tech­ni­cal High School, tes­ti­fied at a coun­cil hear­ing be­fore the vote.

Much of the de­bate has fo­cused on help­ing young and low-in­come women, but some law­mak­ers have been clear that they feel all women de­serve a break when it comes to men­strual prod­ucts. “My view is pretty sim­ple,” says Illinois Demo­cratic state Se­na­tor Melinda Bush, who spon­sored her state’s tax-ex­emp­tion bill. “Women know their pe­riod isn’t a lux­ury, and it shouldn’t be taxed like one. Th­ese prod­ucts are ne­ces­si­ties.”

The bot­tom line New York and Cal­i­for­nia are among states poised to cut taxes on fem­i­nine hy­giene prod­ucts to help women.

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