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Politics Gender Equality

Published on November 23rd, 2015 | by Eleanor Newis
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The 118-Year Gender Gap

Today, I want to talk about women. I don’t do this very often; primarily because too many other things frequently annoy me. But, this week, it was revealed by the World Economic Forum, that if we continue (worldwide) at the current rate, it would take nothing less than 118 years for international gender equality to be reached. Then, before that, there was of course the UK’s vote to reinstate the so-called ‘tampon tax’, which classes sanitary products as luxury items. One might wonder, therefore, what exactly the landscape looks like for women and girls growing up today. Now, the week after the ‘tampon tax’ vote, I went with two friends to see the film Suffragettes. The film centres on a group of East London Suffragettes, all of whom suffered greatly for their activism and for the cause of gaining women the right to vote. The film (a rather pedestrian, but solid piece of storytelling, which should be shown in British schools), ended with a list of countries, and when they awarded women voting rights. The last one: Saudi Arabia, “women promised” the vote. Of course, many people in Western countries like the UK and USA would remain unsurprised by this; more surprising, at least to my friends and I, was the fact that Switzerland only gave women the vote in 1971. Yup, that lovely country, best known for chocolate and lenient overseas tax policy.

And it isn’t just Switzerland which has an unexpected lack of gender equality lurking in its history: the USA has now fallen out of the top 20 on gender equality, according to the Global Gender Gap report. The report – conducted yearly – compiled a list of countries, putting them in order by their success or failure at achieving equality. The USA is number 28 on this year’s report, released at the end of last week, whilst the UK ranked at 18; they are behind Germany, Rwanda, and Iceland, which is the most equal country in the world. In fact, the results of this list may surprise you: Rwanda is, in fact, sixth, and the Philippines seventh, which rather makes the case for a developed Western-style, capitalist economy and the status of being a ‘developed’ country not necessarily being the way to gender equality. In addition, the USA actually ranked 74th out of the 145 countries surveyed in terms of equal pay for equal work; in the UK, women have only 72% of the economic opportunity of men, and 34% of the political empowerment. You have to wonder, at a time when Suffragettes is still in cinemas, what those brave women would have thought of this – I suspect they would not be impressed. And, to return to Switzerland – despite only giving women the vote in 1971, it now ranks amongst the highest internationally in terms of gender equality, proving that change can and will and must happen quickly. In less than half a century, Switzerland has basically lapped the UK the  in this area; especially as that political empowerment percentage puts the UK at 23rd in the survey’s ranking of political opportunity. So, are the UK members of parliament staring at the figures, horrified, and looking frantically for ways to amend this glaring and bizarrely easily fixed problem?

It would appear they are not. Before I go on, I should justify myself, and say it is “easily fixed”, because in relation to equal pay for equal work, I really see no excuse for any functioning government to allow this to pass unnoticed and unsolved. It is, surely, very simple, to pass and uphold a law which decrees that employers must pay women the same as men; just as they must pay people of differing ethnicities and sexual orientations and religions, and whatever else, the same amount for the same work. On most things, I am open to discussion, but I simply cannot imagine the argument which would convince me this cannot be done – please, if anyone has one, get in touch, particularly if you are an MP. Yet, instead of trying to solve the problem of equality, it appears that our government are upholding the legislation which keeps women from achieving it: the recent vote on the ‘tampon tax’ is a perfect example. This is a law which classes sanitary products as ‘luxury items’ and taxes them accordingly, placing VAT on them of 5%. This might not seem a lot, but this law is more a principle issue than a financial one, though that 5% will make more and more of a difference as the economic situation becomes trickier.

I am aware that many people reading this don’t want a detailed low-down on the varying sanitary products, and their uses, and their place in the UK tax system (which is, by the way, another problem with our society: why on earth should we be squeamish about something which half of us deal with once a month?) So, I will suffice to say a few things. Firstly, items approved for VAT are classed as ‘non-essential’, which is a prerequisite for being a ‘luxury’, and sanitary products are placed in the “Goods and Services” section of this category, which also includes maternity pads. Secondly, this is where it gets more interesting (I know, you never thought British VAT law could be so thrilling). Let’s look at the list of items which exempt from VAT – so, these are classed as essentials for. Things like children’s clothes, most food, antiques, assets of historical houses used to settle a tax or estate duty debt with HM Revenue and Customs – what? Yup, if you buy a pack of tampons you pay VAT, but if you’re auctioning off heirlooms to pay the Treasury then you’re absolutely fine. What else? Well, betting and gaming in betting shops is exempt; so are houseboat moorings, gold investment coins, incontinence products, financial services (obviously), and aircraft repair and maintenance – oh, and the NHS healthcare, and the prescriptions we receive for pretty much every other bodily issue.

This is the real crux of the problem: the thing being taxed is not only something women cannot help experiencing, it is also something for which there is no male equivalent, at least not as far as taxes go. I cannot imagine what an equivalent tax on men would be; just as I cannot  imagine how anyone could propose sanitary items to be a ‘luxury’. I can’t say I get excited about treating myself to them when I go shopping. I am aware I have left an argumentative door open, so I will address it now: the vote in the Commons was on an amendment to the Finance Bill, which would not have changed the VAT rate on sanitary products. Rather, it would have forced and concreted a negotiation with the European Union about their classification of sanitary goods for the 5% VAT rate. HM Revenue and Customs has said it charges the lowest VAT allowed on sanitary products by EU law; the government has stated changing this would require the agreement of every EU member state. So, of course, the vote is pointless and nothing more can be done, right. Well, many MPs must have been of that opinion, as the amendment was rejected by 305 to 287 votes.

Now, maybe I am being overly cynical (highly likely), but I am not sure that all these MPs really believed their vote to mean nothing; I don’t believe that they voted ‘No’ simply because they judged the vote to be pointless, as their puny will was nothing compared to might of the EU in all its glorious power. I believe that so many MPs voted to keep the ‘tampon tax’ without negotiation partly because of a sort of apathetic sexism, and partly because the EU referendum is going to be upon us fairly soon, and what better way to convince the British electorate to leave it than by accusing it of low level institutional sexism? Of course, it may be guilty of low level institutional sexism, but due to the proliferation of questionable motives in politics, I have to confine myself to one organisation per article. The past few weeks have been sad for the cause of gender equality in the UK: our pay and our politics are not equal, our periods are taxed. One thing I will say to any MPs who give the EU argument for the ‘tampon tax’, is this – watch Suffragettes. Those women gave up their lives, families, food, money, reputations, friends, husbands, lovers. All you had to do was walk through a yay or nay door to make your gesture for equality – and you couldn’t even do that.

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