Some might say that “nothing is so essential as dignity” (Elizabeth Gilbert did, in The Signature of All Things), but when faced with the decision of food or tampons, you can guess which necessity falls to the wayside.
“No woman should suffer the indignity of choosing between eating and buying sanitary products,” says Rochelle Courtenay who, on hearing of homeless and at-risk women stuffing their knickers with newspaper (more absorbent, apparently, than toilet paper) and loitering in the loos at McDonalds hoping to chance a dropped pad or tampon, decided to do something about it.
She founded Share the Dignity in early 2015 – just a Facebook page, at the time – appealing for public donations of sanitary goods which she could pass on to local homeless and domestic violence shelters and grassroots charities. The first collection received 450 packets. The second, four months later, received 150,000.
Each year, 85,000 women use homeless services in Australia. “Outside suffering the indignity of not being about to protect themselves during their period, homeless and at-risk women face the possibility of infection and disease,” says the Brisbane local, who was shocked to discover that this issue affected women in ‘the lucky country’ – and their children, also.
“I heard stories of women in rural Australia cutting up old rags and young girls who were unable to attend school while they had their period because their families could not afford to buy sanitary products.”
A mother of two daughters herself, Rochelle balances work (and 5am starts) as a personal trainer with the burgeoning organisation. But she has help. More than 450 volunteers have jumped on board “the Dignity train”, including a handful of blokes.
“The charity would not be able to collect or distribute such quantities to women in need without them,” Rochelle says. “We are all just trying to fit in what we can to make a difference.”
Supporting women in major cities, regional and rural communities, the program places collection boxes in business and public areas during April and August and, in addition to co-ordinating these major product drives, runs Christmas campaign #itsinthebag, rounding up donations of pre-loved handbags filled with goodies to make a girl feel special (last year more than 27,000 were collected).
This year’s April drive saw over 1000 collection boxes pop up across the country, and over a million (and counting) packs of pads and tampons donated. Which sounds like a lot, but as Rochelle points out, the need for these products is ongoing.
“The biggest challenge Share the Dignity faces is keeping up with demand… This is a real problem that women face on a monthly basis, and the list of charities who are contacting us to support them is growing.”
This year has also seen Share the Dignity align with feminine products supplier Cottons, whose tampon boxes now feature the number for national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service 1800Respect – a simple move Rochelle counts as one of her proudest.
“We will bring more awareness to this number,” she says. And with one in three women in Australia affected by domestic violence, the message on the box is as essential as what’s in it.