“It Made Me Really Angry”: Why Rochelle Courtenay Started Share the Dignity

Welcome to POPSUGAR Uninhibited, a space where anyone with a period can come for advice, recommendations and support. Here, we’ll tackle topics like PMS, sustainability, post-partum periods and bring you first-person experiences in our period diaries. We also want to raise awareness around period poverty, with the aim to ignite change with the help of our launch partner Modibodi and charity partner Share the Dignity. You can find all of the stories here

On any given day, around 800 million people around the world have their period. A substantial amount of these people also experience period poverty every single day, which means they lack access to sanitary products, as well as education around menstrual health, toilets, hand-washing facilities and waste management.

When Rochelle Courtenay first learned about period poverty in 2015, she instantly looked at ways she could help. This culminated in the launch of charity Share the Dignity, which provides much-needed sanitary products to those experiencing period poverty in Australia.

“Reading an article online in 2015 was the first time I’d ever realised that people didn’t have access to sanitary items and I was so embarrassed,” Courtenay told POPSUGAR Australia. “When I researched it, it wasn’t the first article to be written about period poverty and then that really made me angry because how do people read about it and not do something about it?”

These days, Share the Dignity works with over 3,000 charities across the country to help distribute period products that are collected through donation drives. As well as making a difference on the ground, the charity also aims to educate people on period poverty. The more people who know about it, the more who can lend a helping hand.

“My job is to make sure that there isn’t a person in Australia who doesn’t know that young people are stealing socks out of the laundry or using wadded up toilet paper to deal with their period,” Courtenay said.

We recently chatted to Courtenay about all things period poverty, what it took to get Share the Dignity off the ground and how we can get involved in the fight to end this experience.

POPSUGAR Australia: Period poverty affects a lot of young people. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience with your menstrual cycle over the years?

Rochelle Courtenay: I just had a hysterectomy eight weeks ago as I have spent 40 years of my life with severe periods. I was telling somebody yesterday how I had endometriosis but I didn’t know I had that until I couldn’t fall pregnant for five years.

From there, it’s been probably an operation every two years, which resulted in a final hysterectomy. It was a partial hysterectomy two years ago and then two years before that, it was surgery for endometriosis. It was just never-ending and it obviously played a really big role in my life.

I bleed so badly that when I was a sales rep, I actually used to have a tampon in and a pad on and I also used to have to sit on a towel in the car to get from one town to the other. No one ever talked about it and I would never have told anyone I sat on a towel.

But there weren’t period undies then and one pad just didn’t cut the mustard for me. And you never talked about it, you just did what you needed to do. I’m exceptionally grateful that I’ve always been able to afford sanitary items and I’ve always had access to a shower.

I couldn’t tell you the amount of underwear and clothes that I’ve had ruined from periods. I don’t know that Share the Dignity would even exist if I hadn’t had those real struggles with periods because of the gratitude of just being able to have access to them. I didn’t even know that that was a feeling of gratitude we should have had.

PS: When were you first exposed to period poverty? Can you tell us about the moment that sparked your passion for helping people who experience this?

RC: Reading an article online in 2015 was the first time I’d ever realised that people didn’t have access to sanitary items and I was so embarrassed. Of all the things that I’ve been through in my life and I didn’t know that that problem existed.

When I researched it, it wasn’t the first article to be written about period poverty and then that really made me angry because how do people read about it and not do something about it? At that time, my daughters were 16 and 14 and with the three of us, it probably cost me $70 a month just to have period products in the home, so I couldn’t believe that people could read about it and not do something about it.

PS: Can you please tell us about what it was like launching Share the Dignity? How long did it take you to get it up and running?

RC: It was very swift! I was a personal trainer, and I had all-female clients — I used to have around 40 clients and I’d see them once or twice a week — and I made all my clients bring me a packet of pads or tampons for every glass of wine they had in the month of February and March 2015.

My daughter also drew up a donation flyer that went into a local school and into a counsellor’s office and we managed to collect 450 packets of pads and tampons. I set up the Facebook page on the first of March 2015 as I wanted people to know where the product had gone off too — they went to five different charities in my local area of Sandgate in Brisbane.

But, it wasn’t like we were giving someone a warm jacket that keeps them warm for years, this was clearly a monthly problem. It wasn’t until May of the same year that a friend who worked in domestic violence services in a hospital rang me and said, ‘Hey, can we have some more sanitary items?’

And I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do a Facebook post and I’ll start collecting them all over again. My clients love way too many wines, so that’s their punishment.’ And the post went viral. From there, Melbourne comedian Em Rusciano picked it up and went, ‘This is bullshit. How did I not know about this?’

From that point, it became a full-time job. People from all over Australia wanted to help and it was a moving beast. People were dropping sanitary items off on people’s verandahs for collection when we very first started and in that first August, I think we ended up with 175,000 packets of donated product from the public — when we didn’t even know what we were doing!

Little did I know that in order to have a charity that collected pads and tampons, I needed a board of directors, a constitution, I needed to pay fees and permits in every state and I needed to have insurance for any volunteers that were coming on board. But it was incredible and it was a really great time to surround myself with people who had skill sets different to my own.

It’s been a very big journey and we say we didn’t make mistakes along the way, we just learned better ways to do things. There are lots of things along the way that we could have done better, but we didn’t have any money. We just knew what we needed to do and that was to eradicate period poverty.

Even today, my job is to make sure that there isn’t a person in Australia who doesn’t know that young people are stealing socks out of the laundry or using wadded up toilet paper to deal with their period.

PS: Can you tell us about some of the initiatives Share the Dignity works on throughout the year?

RC: In March and August every year, we put our collection boxes out in every Woolworths store around Australia — it’s about 2,000 collection points. The more businesses that jump on board, the more voices can hear about what the problem is, so that’s always been really important to us.

We now have 6,000 volunteers in Australia that collect those donations, and we work with about 3,200 charities around the country so those donations get picked up and get donated to local charities. We’re not a front-facing charity, we’re simply there to make sure that women are not going without the very basic of essentials.

We do two of those collections in a year and we also do #ItsInTheBag, which is like my favourite child. It’s where we ask everyday Australians to donate a pre-loved handbag (or a new one) that is filled with life’s necessities.

Things like shampoo, conditioner, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, and sanitary items, then whatever else you put into your bag is completely up to you, your bag size, your imagination and your budget. This could include a mask and sanitising gel, maybe a pair of sunglasses, a scarf or a lip gloss.

Anything that you think you would love in your handbag and that would brighten the life of a woman who’s spending Christmas in a domestic violence shelter or experiencing homelessness or poverty. That is probably one of my favourite times of the year, to see the impact of giving something. and for most of us, we have too much stuff.

That’s where #ItsInTheBag started — it started from me cleaning out my bathroom cupboard and after being a netball coach and a personal trainer for so many years, I just had too much stuff that people were gifting me and that I never used. It’s a really nice way for people to get involved in a little kindness at Christmas time.

PS: What are the barriers that stop people from getting out of the period poverty cycle?

RC: Poverty is one of them. If you look at the statistics now, we’re looking at more than five million Australians who live below the poverty line, you have to imagine that two million of those are menstruating people who every month can’t afford the very basic of essentials.

Or it could be that they’re choosing to go without so that they can feed their family or put fuel in their car or pay their electricity bill. Imagine that life and the anxiety that creates every single month. Then you’ve got women who are living in domestic violence situations and who are fleeing domestic violence, where they are so financially controlled that their partners are not even allowing them the money to buy them. That’s a story I’ve heard over and over and over again.

PS: Share the Dignity released The Bloody Big Survey Report a few months ago. What did this research find and did the results surprise you?

RC: Absolutely. It is now the biggest body of data that the world has ever seen on menstruation, which is quite sad in itself. I bet you that there are a lot of other things that have been studied that aren’t relative to those who menstruate, which happens every single month of the year.

What I found astounding was that 24 per cent of women that answered said that they have been experienced period poverty. That 49 per cent of women had left a tampon or pad in too long because they couldn’t afford to buy more. That’s extraordinary.

The really big one, and which is where our advocacy pieces come in, is just how young people are when they’re getting their period for the first time — aged seven, eight nine and 10. That’s 12 per cent of people getting their period at that age and yet our schools don’t educate them on it until they’re 12 years old.

They’re not providing sanitary bins in toilets for primary school. That might have been okay then but we now have the data and changes need to be made in education departments. Every state is run different and that’s eight meetings we’ve been trying to have since we collected that data. We now know better, so we need to be doing better.

PS: As well as the shame and stigma that surrounds periods, those experiencing period poverty might also feel stigmatised by that term and their situation. How can we make sure when we’re having these conversations, that they are positive and make sure these people feel supported enough to ask for help?

RC: To eradicate period poverty requires a multi-pronged approach. We need to get products in the hands of those that need them but we also need to remove the shame and stigma around menstruation for everybody because unless we do, we still won’t have girls talk about the fact that they need sanitary items, or that it’s okay to ask for them.

In my case, I didn’t even know that I had endometriosis. I thought the pain that I had every month was normal, because no one ever talked about it, so I hope that we’re now starting to create a world where it’s normal to talk about your period and the pain.

And then there is education. Currently, in our education systems, we do not educate boys on menstruation, so how do we expect boys that turn into men that become our bosses, or our partners, or our husbands or our fathers, to know what a woman goes through every month, if we don’t educate them?

Men are embarrassed that they don’t know and that is where the problem sits. This year, my niece, who lives in Melbourne and is in grade five, her and her female classmates were asked to stay behind at morning tea while the boys were let out for lunch and the girls were talked to in hushed voices about making sure that when they go on school camp that they take sanitary items.

And it was my niece who said, ‘Why are the boys outside playing? Why are they not in here?’ That has already started the shame and stigma in those students. As an education department, you should not control that. You cannot expect a man to be a great boss if he doesn’t understand what women go through every month.

You can’t expect a husband to have any understanding if he’s never been educated, or your brother or your son or any of those things. And sometimes, like teaching a child to read, they’re not always going to get that education at home. Poverty breeds poverty and lack of education breeds a lack of education, unfortunately, and that’s what schooling is for, to try to help everyone get a different set of skills that they otherwise wouldn’t get at home.

PS: What are some of the highlights you’ve experienced since founding Share the Dignity?

RC: Oh, there have been so many highlights, I would have to say, the removal of the GST on sanitary items was the hardest battle I’ve probably ever fought, but the most rewarding to know that our daughter’s daughters and people in the future will never even realise that we paid GST and we played a role in that and it was really exciting. I was really proud to be part of that.

But I would also say meeting the volunteers that I’ve met as well as the people that have received bags and received help from us. That’s why we do what we do. They bring me to tears, but they also show me that what we’re doing is really important.

PS: How can the public help to end period poverty in Australia? What can we do?

Share this conversation that has been had, make sure that you’re not the only person today that reads about the fact that this problem exists in Australia and the problem is so much greater than I ever imagined. We can eradicate it, if we have the conversation, if we donate in March and August, and if we can kindly put together a bag.

If you can’t do that, and you want to volunteer your time, we would love more volunteers, there could never be enough people out there in their own community, talking about Share the Dignity, helping us get the products into the hands of the people who need it.

PS: In terms of rallying the government to make changes, is there anything that the public can do there?

RC: We have a campaign at the moment called Pad Up Public Health and we are asking that each health department ensures that there are adequate supplies of menstrual products readily available in hospitals. Everybody can download the letter, send it off to their local MP, and make sure that our voices are heard.

For more information, head to the Share the Dignity website.

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