When Rochelle Courtenay visited Katherine in Australia’s Northern Territory in 2019, she was shocked to learn that Aboriginal individuals had to use mattress foam instead of sanitary pads when they had their periods.
A vending machine providing free pads has since changed that. But period poverty, described by the UN as the struggle to afford sanitary products, remains an all-too common situation in remote communities in northern Australia, where a packet of sanitary pads costs between $15 and $20.
"We make sure people don’t have to pay those prices,” says Rochelle, Founder and Managing Director of Share the Dignity. The charity has installed free sanitary item vending machines across Australia and in 2015, she sent pallets of sanitary supplies to Coolgardie in Western Australia after a woman was fined $500 by police for stealing a packet of tampons from a service station.
Bianca Rayner of the Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service (CAYLUS) in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory says some Aboriginal families in the region cannot afford blankets and shoes. Period products at exorbitant prices are well beyond their budgets.
“It’s really tricky from a financial perspective but also the shame around it,” she says, explaining that menstrual products are usually kept behind shop counters where the attendants are male. Her team delivers sanitary products and educational tools as part of its Menstrual Hygiene Management program.
Menstrual inequity, highlighted by World Menstrual Hygiene Day, is often compounded by water and sanitation access, cultural norms and expectations, and education. But it also extends well beyond remote Australia and can force individuals to stay home from school and work, exacerbating the economic vulnerability of people who menstruate. Period poverty and poor menstrual health exist all over the world, but in Australia, a member of the OECD and home to over 2.2 millionaires, the issues are only “getting bigger,” says Rochelle.
One in five Australians now lives below the poverty line, representing a fast-growing number of people for whom menstruation means compromising on the most basic of needs.
“Getting period products becomes less important than putting food on the table. We’re hearing stories, even in Canberra, of women using wadded up toilet paper,” she adds.
In the Share the Dignity's landmark 2021 survey into periods in Australia, more than 40 per cent of 125,000 respondents said they sometimes, regularly or always found it difficult to buy period products because of their cost.
Rochelle successfully fought to end goods and services tax on sanitary items and has seen a commitment by every state and territory to provide free sanitary products in schools. Victorian government policy, new legislation in Canberra, and a “game-changing” children’s education program in Queensland are positive steps.
Still, the work of organisations such as CAYLUS are a “drop in the ocean”, admits Bianca, and it’ll take a more inclusive conversation to truly make a difference. Global initiative Period Positive Workplace, will bring the corporate world and men into the picture.
“This is not a female issue,” says Rochelle, “this is society’s issue.”
The youth activist Niranjana, who created the artwork above for Plan International Australia, has this to say about menstruation:
"Menstruation is natural process of our bodies for those of us with a uterus and so many of us experience it regularly. I wanted to capture the diversity of the individuals and their experiences of dealing with periods in my artwork. Even though it’s a natural biological process, people who have periods are constantly navigating shame and taboo around it, all the while experiencing period poverty. I wanted my work to reflect the vastness of the issue and the need for a collective uplifting of those who bear the brunt of period poverty and shame. Access to menstrual products, care and education is life-saving and so is the recognition and destigmatisation of menstruation. I hope all people who menstruate can see themselves in this artwork and feel supported."