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“They were using socks and newspaper to deal with their period”: Share the Dignity Founder on Ending Period Poverty

Period poverty is a world-wide problem, and that includes a sobering 1 in 5 women here in Australia – it’s why the latest episode of the Unprocessed podcast is shining a light on the issue. Hosts Clara and Grace chat with Rochelle Courtenay on breaking down stigmas around menstruation and how her organisation, Share the Dignity, is working to provide essential sanitary products and end period poverty. 

One of the major barricades to the accessibility of period products is the stigma around periods – we end up with all things menstruation swept under the rug. Politicians side-step the topic, even schools and workplaces find themselves silent on the topic – but with around half of the population dealing with periods at some stage in the lives, too many are left without support or access to sanitary essentials. One report found 49% of Aussies experienced poor or even non-existent education around periods, with 32% reporting that just talking about periods made them uncomfortable – that number jumped to 53% among 16–18-year-old respondents. Not only are millions of Australians struggling to afford these products, but we’ve got too many people who are suffering in silence and dealing with shame from society, peers and school.

That’s where Share the Dignity comes in. Founder Rochelle tells Unprocessed all about the damaging effects of the shame and stigma attached to periods and period products, and how it affects the most vulnerable people in our country.

“I first started to share the dignity when I read an article that talked about the fact that there were 48,000 women who didn't have somewhere safe to call home,” Rochelle told Unprocessed. “I read that they were using socks and newspaper and wanted up toilet paper to deal with their period and never had I ever thought that this could be a problem in Australia.”

Yep – many people us see period poverty as a problem “somewhere else”, but there’s an alarming problem downunder with expensive period products, inaccessibility and a pervasive stigma – this trio comes together as a blockade for women and girls to obtain basic necessities.

In Rochelle’s words, “Period poverty is when somebody is unable to afford access to sanitary items and to be able to deal with their period.” 

Plus, it’s no secret that inflation is through the roof as of recent, and while there’s been extensive discussion about food and electricity – and, of course, that fight-inducing TP – the silence around the soaring prices of (already expensive!) menstrual products is deafening.

Rochelle has seen and heard countless stories of women and girls struggling to access the bare necessities, and being treated without compassion or dignity – she says these stories spurred her on in her fight against period poverty.

“I had... spoken to a woman who was in Darwin who talked about how, a woman had bled across the floor of the petrol station, stolen a packet of pads off the counter, went in the bathroom, was in there for about an hour, cleaning herself up again and then left and she said, what was less dignified charging her with stealing or making her go without?,” she says. “And at that point, I thought there is no way that any woman should be left behind out of access to sanitary items.”

Rochelle notes that we are seeing some improvements, with public schools around the country providing access to essentials – last year Queensland became the latest to provide sanitary products to public high school, with Premier Annastacia Palaszcuk acknowledging how damaging inaccessibility is to kids’ education. 

"Access to period products should never be a barrier to learning", she said at the time.

So, while we’re making progress here in Australia when it comes to ensuring school girls have access to period product essentials, Rochelle says the alarming stats show we’ve still got a long way to go.

It’s especially important that girls have access to these other products as well, not only because they’re essential, but also because it makes it easier and more comfortable to come forward and collect these in a society that deeply stigmatises periods and period products. Rochelle says this is especially crucial in remote Indigenous communities.

“We can send a pallet of pads to a remote community, and the girls will not come in and get them, but you put the bags on top, they will then come and get them because we're removing that shame and stigma and then they will get a bag and then they will fill it with some more products and they'll be proud as punch as they walk away with their bag.” 

So, what can you do?

Other than volunteering and putting together bags with Share the Dignity – sign up HERE. Organisations and businesses can also get involved – and Rochelle says this is an easy way to get together a sizeable amount of donations.

“So, what we're asking organisations to do is maybe every month you're collecting a different item in your office, whether it's shampoo and conditioners one month and toothbrushes another month and then get together in November and put all of the bags together and get them to Bunnings so that we can actually have an impact,” Rochelle says.

If you’re putting a bag together, here are a few of the essentials to include:

  • Shampoo
  • Conditioner
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Deodorant
  • Soap
  • Sanitary items

“Share the Dignity only exists because the government won’t touch period poverty,” Rochelle says.

The organisation fought hard to change the state of period poverty in Australia, proudly securing the removal of the “luxury” GST from sanitary items and ensuring access to sanitary items in schools.

But as Rochelle says, we still haven’t achieved menstrual equity.

“What we’re looking for is menstrual equity which is about access to sanitary items, it’s about educations and the role they will play in removing the shame and stigma, because until we have that, we won’t have menstrual equity here in Australia.”

Head on over to Share the Dignity to donate or volunteer.

Catch the full episode of the podcast HERE – you won’t want to miss this one!



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