Rochelle Courtenay, founder and Managing Director of Share the Dignity was the recipient of the Queensland Award for Excellence in Women’s Leadership in 2023.
This is an extract of an “in-conversation” session with Dr Janet Smith during her award acceptance at the Australian Women’s Leadership Symposium in Brisbane on 12 May 2023.
“When women support women, it feels like nothing can hold us back. We may be weak, but we are also strong. We are vulnerable, but we are also invincible. We know fear, but in its face we can be brave. We too often remain silent. But when we find our voice, we can change the world.” - Rochelle Courtenay
Janet: Please introduce yourself and share with us the story of how and why you started Share the Dignity.
My name is Rochelle, otherwise known as ‘The Pad Lady’. All very good until my husband bought me number plates that say, ‘the pad lady’ and now my kids won’t drive my car, which is a win-win, right?
I started Share the Dignity back in 2015 when I read an article that Mamamia had written that talked about how many women were experiencing homelessness. And at that stage there were 48,000 women who didn’t have somewhere safe to call home. And while I find that number extraordinary, the line that I read next changed me and, I’m proud to say, changed Australia forever. There was a line in that article that said: women were having to use socks, newspaper and wadded up toilet paper to deal with their period.
I couldn’t believe that was happening here in Australia, the lucky country, and it still happens. People can’t afford the very basic of essentials.
Back then I had my own personal training business, and I asked all my clients, they were all women, to bring me a packet of pads or tampons for every wine they drank. In the month of March 2015, we had 450 packets of pads and tampons donated. Not per person! But some ladies would just bring me a bag and say, ‘Let’s not count them babe, let’s just start the training session…’
I sincerely believed then, as I do now, that there isn’t a person in Australia who wouldn’t be empathetic to hearing that a person is using socks or newspaper or wadded up toilet paper to deal with their period. My job now is to make sure that there isn’t anybody who doesn’t know about Share the Dignity.
Going back to that point where we collected 450 packets of pads and tampons, we gave them out to five local charities in my local area of Sandgate, QLD. The problem was it wasn’t like we were giving a woman a warm jacket that kept her warm for years. This is a monthly blessing, our period, and so the donation didn’t last very long. A friend who worked in a domestic violence service for the hospital asked for some more in May 2015. I put a post up on our social media page and that post went viral. In fact, Em Rusciano picked it up and asked, ‘My God, how does this happen!?’.
So, from a little page that had about 250 people on it, and I probably knew every single one of them, to 20,000 people on our social media telling me stories, asking how could they get involved, how could they donate? And it just catapulted from there to the point where now we’ve collected 4 million packets of sanitary items, we work with three and a half thousand charities around Australia, and we have these incredible volunteers that are called our Sheroes and Heroes, and there’s six and a half thousand of them around Australia that help us share the dignity.
Janet: Can you tell us more about where the greatest need for this service is?
We have collection boxes that go out in March and August where we collect sanitary items: pads, tampons, menstrual cups, incontinence aids and reusable period products.
In our last collection drive, we collected 115,000 packets, but our needs were about 170,000. We’re never really getting to what we need to. When we first looked at that number of 48,000 women who are experiencing homelessness, the hole felt bigger than Ben-Hur. Now, sometimes I think are we ever going to see the sides of this? But at the end of the day, we must just keep going.
I believed that we could help 48,000 women who were experiencing homelessness, but then there were our drought-stricken farming communities, Australian towns effected by natural disasters, and there’s our remote Indigenous sisters.
Do you know that sometimes a packet of pads in those remote communities can be $18? Could you imagine being a mother with two daughters? I was speaking to an Indigenous lady last week who said that she lived with her dad and her four sisters and they had no other choice but to steal products to be able to deal with their period.
For us, it’s really important to make sure that while it’s easier to help homelessness services and domestic violence services in our local community, it’s much harder to help those 2200 remote communities in Australia. We do as much as we can to make sure that they get those packets of pads and when we send product we send a pallet, because half the battle is getting the product there.
We make sure people also have choices because when you are vulnerable or struggling, a lot of people don’t get choices. When we first started sending pallets of pads out to communities, we thought we were giving them what they needed, but it wasn’t the case. Sometimes there’s so much shame and stigma around menstruation and especially in Indigenous communities, no one was going out to get the pads because they were so ashamed about it.
To solve this, we put ‘It’s in the Bag’ donations on the top. They’re all excited when a pallet comes into town and to get those bags, as opposed to the palette of pads that no one wanted to go near. We’re always learning what works best.
Janet: So that’s a real example of creating greater dignity. Do you have another example of the sorts of tricks or means that you’ve had to use to enable more dignity for people receiving the products.
Back in 2016 I was in a homelessness service in Melbourne, and I was behind the counter and speaking to the manager. We were only a year old as a charity and I knew that we supplied them pads and tampons. This young woman, she would have been in her early thirties, came up to the counter which was caged and there were two men behind the counter.
This woman said to one of the men, “can I please get some period products?”
That man went up to the second man and said, “do you know where the period products are?”
“Yeah, they’re upstairs,” said the second man.
He had a look and called out, “Do you want pads or tampons?”
I would have absolutely died on the spot to have them say that out loud. I just thought she was so brave to even go to the counter in the first place. So, I turned to them and said, “can you please just give them both to her?”
It was at that point that I asked her why they weren’t kept in the bathroom. What she told me was the first time I ever heard this: the women who are experiencing homelessness will sometimes take the full packets back to the shop to try to exchange it for food, medicine, formula for their children etc. That opened my eyes and I thought there had to be a more dignified way for people to get access to sanitary items.
So I designed the world’s first dignity vending machine. It is a vending machine that dispenses a free packet that has two pads and six tampons inside, what we deem is enough for a day. The machines also have telemetry so we can tell you that the school in Broome has just spent 16 packets yesterday and the most used time is between 10 and 11am.
We’ve now got 500 of these vending machines installed in homelessness services, in domestic violence services, schools, and hospitals around Australia with another 1000 to be installed in the next 12 months.
Janet: When I looked at your website, I was really struck by the question that you’ve got on there, the question is not, why is no one doing anything, but rather, ‘what’s stopping me from doing anything.’ So what was it about you and your life story or who you are that made you step up to do this?
I have two daughters and I just couldn’t imagine them reading about this problem and no one had done anything. That Mammamia article wasn’t the first article to be written about the subject, but there was no such thing as ‘period poverty’ we made up that term. We joined those two words together and went ‘let’s end period poverty’. It’s used all over the globe now.
I’d also suffered severely from endometriosis. So for me, I would never have worn this white suit today trust me. I remember the anxiety that periods created for me, yet I always had access to sanitary items and a shower and a washing machine to be able to deal with my periods. What would that look like for somebody without it?
I suppose that if I didn’t suffer from Endo so badly, maybe Share the Dignity wouldn’t exist. But I’m blessed that I did. I am really grateful that there are so many people that jumped on my bandwagon to help me achieve what we need to achieve, and that is menstrual equity in Australia. We’re not there, but we’re getting there.
...when you drop the ladder down, you're not dropping it down for someone else. You're also meeting them on that ladder and just learning to be bigger and better and have a better impact.
Janet: Where does Australia rate with other countries in the world. You talked about coining the term ‘period poverty’. Are there equivalent movements in other countries? Do you form part of a global network?
Obviously there has been work done around the world before we started doing it because periods have been going for a long time. We’re talking about periods and we’re talking about poverty, it’s not a sexy subject and for a long time the media have not wanted to talk about periods.
Last year we put together a Global Period Poverty Forum. It was the first forum of its kind to bring together people. We’re known as an ‘impact’ and Share the Dignity is probably the biggest ‘impacter’ in the world who has done work in this space. What we wanted to do was bring together everybody so we could learn from each other so that globally we could eradicate period poverty and come up with solutions that meant we were all working towards the one goal.
That started because people were always contacting me on LinkedIn or in other places and saying, can we have a meeting? Can you tell me what you’re doing? Every time I mentored somebody, I learned something from them and that’s the whole point right? Is that when you drop the ladder down, you’re not dropping it down for someone else. You’re also meeting them on that ladder and just learning to be bigger and better and have a better impact. And I think bringing everyone together for us was about how much we could all learn from each other, but so that we didn’t feel alone.
Janet: Can we talk more about girls in schools? I know that we’ve come a long way in Australia in recent times about girls having access to products. What’s the current state of play for girls in schools around Australia?
To answer that, I want to tell you a story about Sarah, a young girl that I met at a school in Hampton Park in Victoria. We put a vending machine into that school, and she came up to me afterwards and very sheepishly introduced herself and said, “I wish this machine was here two weeks ago. I got my period early and I stained the back of my dress and the chair, and the boys were laughing at me. I was so embarrassed I went home.”
Sarah went on to explain it was a Tuesday, and she texted her mum to ask if she could bring home some sanitary items. Her mum rang upset because she didn’t get paid until Thursday she couldn’t afford them, so being without sanitary items Sarah missed two and a half days of school.
That ‘Sarah’ is somebody’s daughter, niece, somebody’s something and she could be anything she wants to, and there’s no way that periods should stop us from getting an education. We’re already ten steps behind everybody in the first place.
So we’re very excited about putting our vending machines into schools, but it is a very costly thing to do, we would scrimp and save to be able to make that impact. That changed when we were able to work with QUT we got some data and were able to do some surveys. We did a survey called the Bloody Big Survey. We had 125,000 respondents of Australians answer questions around menstruation, that is now the biggest body of data that the world has ever seen on menstruation. It’s really great, but it’s embarrassing it has taken this long.
That data is how we’ve been able to advocate to get every state and territory to give access to sanitary items. Now you will see every state and territory in Australia promise that they are rolling out access to sanitary items in all schools, which is fabulous. There are a couple of little states that have made great announcements, but there’s not a lot of meat in their sandwich. And that’s what our job is this year is to make sure that there’s substance in that.
Giving access to sanitary items is one part of the problem, one of the other fights we’re having is making sure that we educate boys and girls. Because without educating boys, we end up with men who are bosses, who are partners, who are brothers, who don’t have any understanding, and while they make fun, they’re only making fun because they lack the knowledge of what it’s about.
I think that in 20 years’ time, we will be looking at a different world that doesn’t have the shame and stigma around menstruation because we haven’t separated boys from girls, and we’ve educated everybody appropriately.
Janet: Can you to tell us what are the best things that we can do to help you and your cause?
Rochelle: One of the best ways to help is through our ‘It’s in the Bag’ program, it’s like my favourite child.
You fill a handbag with life’s essentials like shampoo, conditioner, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, and sanitary items. Whatever else you put into your bag is up to you, your imagination, and your budget. I’ve owned 645 million hair ties in my life, but I can never find one. So, items like that, which you would want in your handbag if you were fleeing domestic violence, are what we encourage you to consider putting in your bag.
You can drop them into any Bunnings the last two weeks of November. I would encourage you today to think about how you could put together a bag ready by buying one thing each week between now and November and putting together a bag. Those bags have a significant impact on the women who are spending Christmas in domestic violence shelters, are experiencing homelessness, or in remote Indigenous communities. It’s really important that we get as many people as we can to put together a bag.
Every single bag that gets dropped at Bunnings, and normally we collect around 100,000, gets checked by those incredible Sheroes that have angel wings and they get them directly into domestic violence services. If you donate in Warrnambool or Brighton or Bulimba, they stay in that local area to help. Everything that’s donated in your hood stays around in your hood.
Janet: I think you can all see why we’ve made this decision for Rochelle to receive this award. It’s such a well-deserved award.
I will say that I’m only as good as the women that surround me. And I am part of the most incredible team. And I’m so proud to be on their team. So thank you to some of them that are here today. But they’re out there everywhere in Australia, So and we would love you to volunteer. If you’d like to volunteer, please join us.
Share The Dignity works to make a real on the ground difference in the lives of women and girls experiencing homelessness, fleeing domestic violence, or doing it tough. Find out more about the It’s in the Bag campaign here: https://www.sharethedignity.org.au/itsinthebag