Giving women sanitary products along with dignity

Image credit: Death to the Stock Photo

This article first appeared on SBS Life on December 22, 2015.

Finding a safe place to sleep and food are some of the many challenges that homeless Australians contend with each day. For the women among them there’s another not often spoken of need – sanitary products.

In October, a West Australian woman was fined $500 by police for stealing a $6.45 packet of tampons from a service station. It’s an incident that highlights that choosing between food and sanitary items is a dire reality for women doing it tough. And one that charities like Share the Dignity are helping to address.

“I read an article in March this year that talked about ‘the homeless period’. It was something that me  – and obviously dozens of women – had never thought about. I was really surprised that it was happening in Australia but I think I was more surprised that no one had done anything,” says Rochelle Courtenay, founder of Share the Dignity, who collect and distribute sanitary products to women in need across Australia.

The issue also resonated with Courtenay on a personal level. “I had endometriosis and I suffered really badly from periods. The anxiety that it caused me in the first couple of days that I had my period was really horrible. I couldn’t even imagine how living with that – not knowing where you are going to get your next pad or tampon from – would feel.”

She says women who can’t afford sanitary products are left to “go to public bathrooms and make makeshift pads out of toilet paper or newspaper”.

Compelled to help Courtenay arranged a local collection drive, which resulted in 450 donations. She then set up a Facebook page to show supporters how the pads and tampons were distributed. “We named it Share the Dignity right from the beginning. It was just about how undignified it must be to not have sanitary items at ‘that time of the month’. We wanted it to be about sharing the information and sharing the dignity.”

Inspired by the first drive, another was launched. The campaign went viral and resulted in 150,000 donations in August. “Our bedrooms, our bathrooms, our houses – everything was completely covered in pads and tampons,” Courtenay says of the overwhelming response.

Both volunteers and the corporate sector have gotten behind Share the Dignity. Ten volunteer leaders in each state ensure the charity’s work has maximum reach, while companies have donated products and services. For the next drive in April, collection bins will be located at participating Fernwood Fitness and Terry White Chemist outlets nationally.

The impact of Share the Dignity’s work is one that Courtenay sees every day. Fighting tears, she recounts the story of a women she met at a recent homeless support event: “There was this one women there. She came over and I said, ‘You can take what you like.’ She started crying. She had gotten her period that day and all she had was a tampon that she had found on the bathroom floor. She had been hanging on to that and it is all she had. She was crying at how grateful she was – for something we take for granted. For something we pop in our trolley and don’t give a second thought.”

Stephanie Cooper of My Friends’ Place, a domestic violence shelter on the Gold Coast which receives Share the Dignity donations, says it’s an amazing help: “What is good about Share the Dignity’s donations is that when a woman does require them we have them. They are as essential as food and water and it is one more thing that we have covered.”

Now their December It’s In The Bag campaign (a handbag donation filled with female sanitary and hygiene products) is closed, Courtenay is looking ahead to Share The Dignity’s April drive. With a target of 500,000 sanitary items, she says: “We want people to walk the sanitary aisles a little bit differently. Pop an extra packet in your trolley and when the next collection comes round you can donate them.”

Want to help? Donate, volunteer or learn more about Share the Dignity here.