Madrid Election Talk: Period poverty, tampon tax and women’s rights

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Author: Emer O’Toole

What is period poverty?

Period poverty is an umbrella term describing the socioeconomic barriers which prevent women, girls, and people who menstruate from managing their periods safely, and with dignity. It manifests itself in various ways, from the unseen (skipping meals to scrape together money for tampons and toilet paper) to the severe (lacking access to a bath or shower). 

Although the shame of substituting old socks or newspaper for sanitary pads leaves obvious emotional scars, the consequences of menstrual inequality aren’t just psychological, wreaking havoc on women and girls’ professional and educational prospects, and leaving them vulnerable to mental and reproductive health problems.

Is period poverty a problem in Madrid?

Yes. Westerners often associate period poverty with developing countries (fun fact – Kenya is streets ahead of America and Europe on the menstrual equality front, becoming the first country to slash tampon tax back in 2004). But hygiene poverty affects 500 million people worldwide, with 1 in 4 European women forced to choose between buying food and feminine hygiene products.

Whilst menstrual inequality in Spain remains under-investigated, it’s estimated to affect two in every 10 Spanish women. Madrid, it appears, is no exception: Ana Enrich, co-founder of @PeriodMovement’s Spanish branch, emphasises that ‘where there is poverty, there is period poverty’.

Madrid might be Spain’s richest region, but it’s also among the most unequal, with almost a million madrileñxs facing severe economic precarity. Even before Covid-19 hit, low-income Madrid residents bore the brunt of public service cuts, and the coronavirus crisis has created additional, invisible barriers to health and hygiene. 

Spending time outdoors is key to staying safe and socially distanced, but access to public toilets – which were already in short supply in Madrid – has been limited, obliging women to pay for the privilege of using a bathroom anywhere other than at home. The pandemic has also exacerbated gender inequality: women worldwide have been on the professional and domestic frontlines throughout, but Spanish women have been disproportionately impacted by pandemic-related unemployment.

Marginalised communities aren’t the only ones being taxed for their biology. Spanish women spend, on average, €6,000 on sanitary products over their lifetime. Given that they earn 14% less than their male counterparts, this is money women just don’t have to spare. 

In most countries, feminine hygiene products are classed as luxuries, and are taxed as such, with pads carrying a corresponding 10% VAT tag in Spain. Meanwhile, Viagra is considered an ‘essential product’. Its tax rate? 4%.

What can be done in Madrid?

On a global scale, period poverty is gradually becoming less taboo – largely thanks to pressure placed on governments and corporations by grassroots organisers. 

In 2020, Scotland became the first country to make pads and tampons free,  with France,  Ireland and Belgium taking recent steps to make them more readily available. Elsewhere, then-teenager Amika George’s #freeperiods campaign galvanised the government to provide free products in English schools, with New Zealand set to follow suit

Spain, meanwhile, has been a mixed bag. Since 2018, period products on the Canary Islands have been tax-free, and the Universidad de Vigo has just become the first higher education institution in Spain to offer students and staff free pads and tampons.

Organisations such as the Pinto-based Amba por una Menstruación Digna work to raise awareness of period stigma, and the issue has been a talking point in Valencia too. At the height of the pandemic, the Catalan company Farmaconfort donated 100,000 intimate hygiene products to vulnerable women, and the NGO Mensajeros de la Paz also includes pads in their aid packages.

But progress hasn’t been linear. Madrid-based Paloma Alma – period activist and founder of CYLCO Menstruación Sostenible – criticised Spain’s reluctance to tackle period poverty head-on in a recent HuffPost article. Last year, Amba denounced OKDiario after the publication clandestinely recorded and satirised their talk on period poverty. It’s a stark reminder that the biggest barrier to menstrual equality might be the trivialisation of women’s rights. 

The 4M elections.

Más Madrid have placed period poverty front and centre of their 4M campaign. Candidate Mónica García, an anaesthesiologist by trade, made headlines this month for distributing pad-shaped leaflets on Gran Vía

The contents of MM’s programa electoral suggest that this was far from a publicity stunt: in addition to outlining the party’s commitment to improving sex education, media beauty standards, and reproductive rights, its ‘feminismos’ section highlights MM’s intention to make period products freely available in all public buildings within the Comunidad de Madrid. Crucially, in addition to calling on the government to reduce sanitary products’ VAT to 4%, MM stresses the importance of education in removing the stigma surrounding menstrual inequality.

The Left: make hygiene products and contraception free for women.

In keeping with their commitment to a ‘feminist world’, Podemos plan to make hygiene products and contraception free for women.  The party have long held the government to the sword on their refusal to reduce tampon tax – a tax which the PSOE has historically denounced. The Juventudes Socialistas de Madrid have also emphasised that ‘la menstruación es política’ (menstruation is politics).

The Right: control wombs.

However, judging by their manifestos, right-wing 4M candidates’ interest in reproductive health begins and ends with controlling wombs, rather than legislating to improve women’s lives. Vox Madrid’s manifesto reduces women to their maternal role – just as Vox España’s sole mention of feminism is their promise to suppress it.

Ayuso voted against a reduction in tampon tax.

The Partido Popular drew criticism for voting against a proposed reduction in tampon tax in 2016 – a vote from which Ciudadanos abstained – and little has changed in the intervening years. Despite outlining their commitment to an ‘equal and advanced’ society, where men and women can live in ‘dignity’ and ‘where nobody is left behind’, the PP’s manifesto neglects to address period poverty.

Ultimately, anyone who menstruates cannot flourish in a society where difficulty in accessing sanitation interferes with their ability to work, study, or put food on the table. Period poverty is more than a feminist hashtag – it’s a public health, social justice and human rights crisis. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s a matter of life or death. 

The thousands of madrileñas suffering in silence shouldn’t be left to the mercy of strangers, volunteers, or online activists. They need leadership, and politicians who prioritise their citizens’ health, hygiene and happiness. 

Read more Madrid Election Talk:

This article was written by Emer O’Toole who is from Belfast, Ireland, but has called Madrid home since 2019. Her interests include writing, reading, art, women’s rights, tortillas, plazas, and people-watching on the Metro. You can get in touch with her via Instagram at @_emerotoole.

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