Share the Dignity: Young women missing school because they can’t afford sanitary items


Did you know that there are teenage girls in Australia who stay home from school when they’re menstruating because they can’t afford sanitary items? About a year ago, Brisbane-based personal trainer Rochelle Courtenay read an article on the Mamamia website about women experiencing homelessness who couldn’t afford to buy these items, and could not believe what she was reading.

“I was shocked that it was in Australia, but even more shocked that no one had done anything about it,” she said.

Having two daughters of her own meant Rochelle empathised deeply with the situation these women were in. She was inspired to organise a collection for charities in her local area, and a total of 450 sanitary items donated. A few months later Rochelle organised another run which was picked up by The Project, and that’s where Share the Dignity started – 150,000 items were donated around Australia.

Share the Dignity collects and donates sanitary items to charities around Australia and the demand is widespread – from poor urban areas, to farming communities that are managing drought. Initially Share the Dignity was supplying specialist homelessness services, but the demand from mainstream charities came in so quickly they decided to service those requests too.

On average women spend around $10 per month on sanitary items (not including pain relief). This might not seem like a lot, but for someone living in poverty it could be the choice between sanitary items and food for a day. For a single mother with a daughter or daughters, the problem compounds. Women who can’t afford to buy these items instead use old newspaper, bunched up toilet paper and hand towels for example to manage blood flow. And the cost doesn’t necessarily stop once a woman reaches menopause. As Rochelle discovered, incontinence pads are very expensive and due to the growing numbers of women aged over 50 who are homeless they soon discovered a hidden demand for incontinence pads.

Putting the clear lack of dignity aside for a moment, the issue of young women missing out on school is also alarming. We know that there are certain factors that make it harder for someone to avoid homelessness – they include disengaging from school, which is what happens when you don’t go, and experiencing homelessness at a young age. For young women to have these risks compounded because they are having normal bodily functions and their parents can’t afford to address them is unacceptable.

Share the Dignity now organises two runs per year, one in April and August. Collection points for the April run will be announced at the end of March. You can donate pads, tampons and incontinence pads. Share the Dignity is entirely run by volunteers and they are looking for more so anyone who is interested can email volunteers@sharethedignity.com.au.

Now the practical needs are being met, Rochelle is taking the next step by starting an online petition to get the “tampon tax” removed. She is heading to Canberra in April to meet with federal politicians on the matter. 

“We’ve started off grass roots by going to politicians in each state, and now we’re going to Canberra,” Rochelle said.

“It’s so unfair that we still pay a tax on these items – they’re not luxury items, they are essential. If we get the 500,000 items donated, more than $200,000 will have been paid in tax on those items.”

So why did Rochelle take on the enormous task of addressing the shortage of sanitary items for people living in disadvantage?

She explained, “Because I never wanted my daughters to read about this as a problem in 10 years’ time, and turn to me and say ‘what did you do about it?’”