Tampon tax: Campaigners to fight for free menstrual products throughout Germany

Germany is set to get rid of the so-called ‘tampon tax’. But campaigners now want to see period products provided for free in public places, including schools. We spoke to one of the activists.

Tampon tax: Campaigners to fight for free menstrual products throughout Germany
Campaigners Nanna-Josephine Roloff and Yasemin Kotra. Photo: Sven Rehder.

When the Bundestag voted to reduce the tax on menstrual products, such as tampons and sanitary towels, it was a landmark moment in Germany – especially for campaigners who had battled for the change.

“The decision empowers women to think about their period as not something they need to hide,” Hamburg-based campaigner Nanna-Josephine Roloff, 28, tells The Local.

So what else does it mean for women in Germany?

“We, first of all, have to pay a bit less for our supplies,” Roloff says. “But it also means that we got the parliament to talk about tampons. Think about that: it's such a big thing.

“When you see the discussion (in the Bundestag) there were a lot of women wearing red dresses, red scarfs, red shirts, red jackets on that day. They showed solidarity through their clothes.”

READ ALSO: Why menstrual products are set to become cheaper in Germany

A 'luxury' product?

Menstrual products have long been taxed at the 19 percent value-added-tax (VAT) rate in Germany. However, a reduced rate of seven percent applies to certain foods, books, magazines, cut flowers and other items deemed 'essential'.

Many argued that the higher 'luxury' tax rate on menstrual items is unfair and discriminatory because lots of women have no choice but to buy these items on a regular basis.

“The higher tax rate on these products amounts to fiscal discrimination of women based on their sex, which is not allowed by the Constitution,” said Roloff and fellow-campaigner Yasemin Kotra on their petition which gathered more than 190.000 signatures.

As well as the petition, activists lobbied politicians, gathered facts, researched extensively and tried to raise awareness in Germany.

It was a long road and two years worth of work. But Roloff and Kotra managed to secure a meeting with Finance Minister Olaf Scholz in October who backed their drive, signalling a major success in the campaign.

The Bundestag decision was approved by Germany's upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat at the end of last month. It means the sales tax on sanitary products will be reduced from 19 percent to seven percent from January 1st 2020.

'Menstruation still a taboo'

Getting German politicians talking about periods is a big step in the right direction, says Roloff. But there's a lot more work to be done.

“Now we move to the the next steps,” says Roloff. “Menstruation is still a taboo. We still don’t talk openly about our periods. That’s the next big thing to deal with.”

Photo: DPA

Roloff says the aim is to work with Germany's states to introduce free menstrual products in public buildings like schools, hospitals, prisons and council offices.

“Everywhere where the state is involved there should be tampons and pads like there is toilet paper,” she says.

Why is Germany lowering the 'tampon tax' now?

Countries and states across the world, including Kenya, Canada, India and Australia, have already got rid of the tax on menstrual products, while others, such as France, Spain and the UK, have reduced it.

So pressure has been building on countries that are yet to take action.

Roloff puts the changes down to a new push for equality by activists across the world.

“We had #MeToo and now I think there’s a new wave of women's movements for all rights – not just the basic rights,” she says.

“You are allowed to vote or to work, but women want more rights for actual equality. The 'tampon tax' fits into this whole topic: empowerment and self determination, my body my choice, in this whole picture.”

'Get rid of the taboo'

As well as monitoring the reduced tax due to come into force next year, Roloff is gearing up for the next stage in the campaign.

“Now that we don’t have tampon tax anymore we can’t just stop, we need to go further,” she says.

“Our main topic is to get rid of the taboo about menstruation. Part of that is to normalize supplies everywhere. That’s just the next logical step to fight for.”

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Ehegattensplitting: How did Germany’s marriage tax law become so controversial?

Ehegattensplitting, literally translated as “spouse splitting,” is a German policy which allows married couples to save taxes by dividing their income. Some argue that the policy, in place since the 1950s, should be abolished.

Ehegattensplitting: How did Germany's marriage tax law become so controversial?
Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

How does Ehegattensplitting work?

Ehegattensplitting refers to how married couples’ income taxes are calculated under the German law. At the end of a financial year, couples can opt to file taxes jointly through Ehegattensplitting. If they choose to do so, the income of the two spouses will be added together and then halved. 

The tax authority calculates taxes for the couple’s average income and then doubles that amount to arrive at a final tax figure. The total amount of income taxes owed to the government based on Ehegattensplitting is often less than the amount owed if each partner had filed separately. 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about paying taxes in Germany

The optional system benefits couples in which one partner makes substantially more than the other, and it also applies to marriages in which only one spouse earns an income. Single-earner couples will typically reap the most benefits. On the other hand, if both partners earn roughly the same amount, they gain no advantage from Ehegattensplitting

With very few exceptions, “the elegant thing about full income splitting, as it is in place in Germany, is that there’s no constellation where a married couple pays more in taxes than two single individuals,” explained economist Katharina Wrohlich, of the University of Potsdam and DIW Berlin, in an interview with The Local earlier this year. 

Why is Ehegattensplitting controversial then?

On the one hand, advocates of the policy often cite the special status of marriage under the law and argue that marriage is a cooperative economic arrangement which should be recognised as such. 

On the other hand, critics have suggested that the law can often discourage women from working – either at all or in part-time positions – and that it is unfairly preferential to higher-income households.

Wrohlich explained the gender-equality-based criticism this way: “The drawbacks are that both partners face the same marginal tax rate. So, the secondary earner, which is mostly the woman in Germany, faces a much higher marginal tax rate than she would if she were taxed individually.”

As a result, “there are very strong negative incentives to either take up work or to increase working hours, in particular for married women,” she said.

Timm Bönke, an economist at Free University Berlin, noted that even though some spouses will be discouraged from working, there is “no loser” because the couple also gains tax advantages.

Instead, according the Bönke, “the disadvantage is that Germany loses a lot of money by having [Ehegattensplitting] because it is discouraging work and, on the other hand, you have a lot less revenue from taxation,” which could go towards funding education or child care, for example. 

Another criticism has to do with social policy.  As Wrohlich explained, “This kind of tax subsidy through income splitting increases with income. So, very high-income couples profit much more from this kind of policy than families with low incomes. And this is perceived to be very unfair, at least among some people.”

Additionally, some critics argue that Ehegattensplitting ought to take into account whether or not a family has children. 

Two wedding rings on a text reading ‘joint assessment’. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Andrea Warnecke

What is the history behind Ehegattensplitting?

Married couples in Germany have not always enjoyed these tax benefits. In fact, in the years prior to the late 1950s, many German couples were at a financial disadvantage when it came to taxation. This disadvantage resulted from the progressive tax system first introduced in the 1920s, whereby higher incomes are taxed at higher rates.

Under this system, a married couple would jointly pay taxes at the higher rate associated with the sum of their income. As a result, the typical married couple would pay more in taxes than they would have as unmarried individuals. 

READ ALSO: ‘Ja, ich will’: What it’s like to get married in Germany

By the early 1950s, the added tax burdens on some married couples — often called the “marriage penalty tax” — had garnered public concern.  In 1957, the German Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the existing tax law discriminated against married people and was thus unconstitutional.

Although several alternative policies were considered, the German legislature ultimately passed the Tax Amendment Act of 1958 which introduced Ehegattensplitting. It has been in effect ever since.

Since the 1950s, the German Constitutional Court has upheld the constitutionality of Ehegattensplitting. In 1982, the court defended the policy under the premise that it properly recognizes marriage as a cooperative arrangement. In 2013, the German government allowed civil partners, including same-sex partners, to split their income for tax purposes, as well.

What are possible alternatives to Ehegattensplitting?

Since its inception, several reforms to Ehegattensplitting have been put forth. 

One possible alternative to Ehegattensplitting involves a transferable tax-free personal allowance, which is the amount of untaxed income that each person is entitled to receive.  In Germany, you are entitled to a basic exemption of roughly 10,000, which decreases with higher incomes.

According to the proposed reform, “the idea is that in a married couple, both are, in principle, taxed individually, but as long as one spouse does not use up his or her own personal allowance, he or she can transfer it to their partner,” Wrohlich said. 

Another possible reform would involve moving towards the system of family tax splitting used in France. Wrohlich explained that the French and German systems are actually very similar: “In France, married people without children can do exactly the same income splitting as in Germany, only that, in addition, if they have children, they get additional splitting factors.”

In this system, income is split further for each additional child, with added benefits following the birth of the third child. 

Should we expect Ehegattensplitting to stick around?

The possibility of reforming Ehegattensplitting may gain renewed attention in light of the federal election. Within the past year, both the Greens and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) have proposed reforms to the policy of Ehegattensplitting.

The SPD, Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP) are currently in coalition talks to form a new government. 

Some experts are pessimistic about any radical reform to the law. Bönke told The Local earlier this year: “I don’t think that in the near future you will see that income splitting is abolished. ”

Instead, he believes it is more likely that “income splitting is opened or will be made available for different kinds of families that are not married”. But, he noted, making more people eligible for income splitting will likely disincentivise even more people from taking up work.