Sitting down with a homeless woman in the middle of Pitt St Mall?on a Thursday afternoon attracts some weird looks from passers-by.
Rebecca Taylor is leaned up against the wall with her backpack and a few blankets, accompanied by Roxy and Princess, an eight-year-old Jack Russell miniature foxy and a one-year-old border collie-chihuahua cross. Bek, 28, is homeless and has been on and off for the past 14 years. Hundreds of people walk past, mostly businessmen and tourists who struggle to control their shopping bags. Some glance sideways, as if silently acknowledging an uncomfortable presence, but most would rather pretend she isn’t there.
Our conversation drifts to how she became homeless, where she sleeps and how she makes money, but there is one particular issue I’m most curious about. After a while I screw up the courage and ask, “What do you do when you have your period?”
Having to deal with your period each month is already uncomfortable and inconvenient, but for homeless women like Bek, it must be horrific. It’s a problem people want to pretend doesn’t exist; men squirm when it’s brought up and women understand it’s socially taboo, so become complicit in pretending it doesn’t happen.
For women living on the street, it’s a daily struggle to scrape together enough money for basics like food and shelter, which means they’re often forced to steal just to get their hands on essential sanitary items such as tampons and pads.
“I’ve had to go into Woolies and steal underwear; I’ve luckily never been caught,” says Bek.
“It’s hard, because there are times when you run out and you’re scratching your head thinking where you’re going to get some. There have been times I’ve had to use paper or toilet paper.”
It’s generally recognised that sanitary items are a necessity of life, but it takes a story like Bek’s to ram home the fact that life without them is an anacronism and a gross inconvenience. So it’s hard to understand why the Australian government levies the 10 per cent GST on tampons and pads. For women like Bek, the extra tax is a significant disadvantage, piling insult upon injury.
“I wasn’t aware that menstruation was an illness.”
Michael Woolridge, Howard’s Health Minister, in 2000
Although not officially classed as a “luxury” or “non-essential items” that’s how they’re perceived by our Federal government, so they’re not included in the government’s list of important health goods. But condoms, lubricants, sunscreen and nicotine patches? All GST free!
Before the GST was officially introduced in July 2000, a proposal was made to exempt sanitary items, but it was dismissed by then Prime Minister John Howard. At the time, Michael Woolridge, as Health Minister, likened sanitary items to shaving cream, saying “Well, as a bloke, I’d like shaving cream exempt, but I’m not expecting it to be.”
Asked why condoms were exempt he replied, “Well, condoms prevent illness. I wasn’t aware that menstruation was an illness”.
Access to sanitary products is a problem around the world, attracting the attention also of the United Nations. Jyoti Sanghera, head of social issues for the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, has said “The stigma around menstruation and menstrual hygiene is a violation of several human rights, most importantly of the right to human dignity.”
And Craig Mokhiber, head of the commissions Development Branch says, “In a world where 2.5 billion persons lack adequate sanitation, where menstruation is often stigmatised, and women face multiple forms of discrimination, the failure to take immediate action to guarantee their right to water, sanitation and hygiene poses dire consequences.”
Yet in Australia, a highly developed country, women in need are not provided for.
In June, former Greens Senator Larissa Waters, during debate of a new Bill to extend GST charges to imported items costing less than $1000, proposed the removal of GST from tampons, pads and liners. She argued that revenue gained by extending the imports GST, estimated at an extra $300 million a year, would easily cover revenue lost by axing the tax on sanitary items. The amendment was opposed by Liberal and Labor and defeated 33 votes to 15.
It’s estimated the GST on sanitary items earns the government just $26 to $40 million a year – a figure both the Abbott and Turnbull governments have insisted Australia cannot afford to lose.
Waters denounced the vote as “a bloody disgrace”, adding “Revenue loss is no longer a credible excuse for refusing to axe the sexist tampon tax.”
The Australian Tax Institute, a group represented by about 12,000 tax experts, supports moves to remove the tax.
“It can quite reasonably be said that the use of such products is a matter of general and public health,” says Professor Robert Deutsch, a tax expert who is the institute’s Senior Tax Counsel.
Rochelle Courtenay, who founded the charity Share The Dignity after reading about women forced to use newspapers and socks to manage periods, says major party politicians are adamant they will not scrap the tax. “I’ve had conversations with high up politicians who say ‘Well, where are we going to make that 26 million dollars?’”
Share The Dignity aims to ensure every women has access to the basic necessities most Australian women take for granted. (There are 44,000 homeless women in Australia, but because of domestic violence, unemployment and other factors, more than 85,000 women access homelessness services each year, says Homelessness Australia.)
Rochelle tells of a woman she met at a Gold Coast conference about homelessness. “There was this tiny woman – half my size – with two boys who were both at school. She was living in her car because it was better than living through the hell at home.”
When she saw bins Rochelle had set up with free pads and tampons she started crying. “I had just got my period today and I had been hanging on to this one tampon that I had found on the floor,” she told Rochelle. “I wouldn’t buy them because that’s five dollars worth of sausages I could buy and cook on the barbeque for my kids and then they could have dinner and I could send them to school with lunch.”
That’s the real scenario in Australia in 2017: women having to forgo sanitary necessities so they can feed their kids.
Share The Dignity has started installing dispensers across Australia that will provide free sanitary items for women in need. It took 18 months to find a supplier, Ventrader, who could produce a suitable dispenser.
Now, says Rochelle, “We help transgender. We help anyone who bleeds. If you bleed you receive.”
For women like Bek, access to free dispensers will make a huge difference.
“I know about the ones you’ve got to pay and they’re shocking because what if you don’t have the money? What if you don’t have the spare one dollar or two dollars? You’ve got to ask someone for a spare dollar just to get it,” she says.
Rochelle believes access to sanitary care is a fundamental right and the tax violates this. “We’ve tried as a community and as a nation to say we’re all going to sign this petition and this is not okay, but the politicians don’t care, they’re male and it doesn’t affect them. It’s not right,” she says.
So where next for the campaign to at least lift the inequitable tax?
NSW Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi has campaigned against the tax for years. “This is simply a tax on women for their biology, there’s no other way to put it,” she told Hatch.
“Women are already economically disadvantaged because of issues such as the gender pay gap and superannuation gap. Taxes such as this further exacerbate the situation for women who are homeless or unemployed, and make it especially difficult for women who are doing it tough.”
It’s an indignity that will be driven home once a month, over perhaps 40 years, for most women. That’s about 520 periods, each costing about $28 in essential supplies. That comes to $14,560 per woman at present prices. As long as the GST is left on essential sanitary products, that means women will each be taxed about $1323 by a blatantly unfair and sexist tax over their lifetime.
If you need to be persuaded how unfair this is, consider that women, across every sector of industry in this country, are paid less than men, receiving on average just 81.2 cents for every dollar a man will earn. “I genuinely think it is a bit hypocritical, when there is a pay gap in Australia, to assume that females have to spend more money when they don’t make as much money,” says Jameel Khan, 23, a Sydney student. “In my opinion, even the most misogynist man should be supportive of making sanitary items exempt from that tax,” he told Hatch.
Australia is not the only developed country to levy a tax on sanitary products. Women in the UK also are fighting for a sales tax to be eliminated, though it has been reduced to 5 per cent (from 17 per cent). In the US a “luxury tax” is usually levied on sanitary items, though a few states, notable New York and Illinois, last year voted to axe it.
The Scottish regional government this year launched a pilot project to provide free sanitary products to low-income women in the city of Aberdeen – a move to help women who were skipping school or work because they couldn’t afford tampons and pads.
When the GST was introduced, John Howard told the people “It will give us a fairer taxation system” and would “move Australia forward”. But the reality – that women have to pay a tax for a biological attribute of their sex – is grossly unfair and a big backwards step in a country that prides itself on being an innovator in the war on sexual discrimination.
Not all women are homeless, and a lifetime saving of $1323 would be of modest importance to most families. But that’s not the point. Scrapping the tax is about more than money, it’s about principle, equality and eradicating the sexism still inherent in our society.
Rochelle Courtenay, for one, won’t let up campaigning until the tax is scrapped. “Tampons and Ferrero Rochers are not in the same category,” she says. “Why can’t … Malcolm Turnbull say ‘You know what, that’s not okay; I’m really sorry, ladies’ – and fix it.”