Rochelle Courtenay had never wondered what homeless women do when they get their period. Her life changed when she read an article explaining how women who couldn’t afford sanitary products were forced to employ makeshift solutions such as rolled-up toilet paper, newspapers and even socks.
“I couldn’t believe it was happening these days,” says Courtenay, a personal trainer based in Queensland. She was even more surprised to learn this issue had been written about previously yet no-one had taken action.
WHEELS IN MOTION
As an endometriosis sufferer, 46-year-old Courtenay certainly understands how debilitating – and expensive – periods can be. Two years ago, she began asking her female clients to donate pads and tampons that could be distributed to homeless women.
She then sent out a flyer to the community and put a collection box on the front verandah of her Brisbane home. Courtenay also set up a Facebook page called Share the Dignity. When Melbourne comedian Em Rusciano shared one of Courtenay’s posts, the number of fans exploded from 500 to tens of thousands. The grassroots organisation has since distributed more than 450,000 packets of pads and tampons to charities, including Sydney’s Wesley Mission and Anglicare. They are picked up by 1500 volunteers, who Courtenay calls “sheroes”, from collection points around Australia each April and August. However, she says 500,000 packets are needed each year to fill the need.
REWARDS OF GIVING
A mum of two daughters aged 18 and 19, Courtenay says while it is a lot of hard work, founding Share the Dignity is the most rewarding thing she has ever done after rasing her girls. The honour continued when she was invited to attend the United Nations women’s conference in New York in March.
Courtenay also introduced the ‘It’s in the Bag’ Christmas appeal, which seeks donations of new and pre-loved handbags filled with necessities such as sanitary products, deodorant, toothbrushes and toothpaste. In conjunction with vending company Ventrader, she also designed the #pinkbox Period Pack Dispenser, which dispenses free packs containing two pads and four tampons.
Courtenay aims to have 50 of these machines installed in courthouses and schools in low socio-economic areas and hubs where homeless women tend to congregate by the end of the year.
The direction of the charity changed when Courtenay met a woman at a Homeless Connect event on the Gold Coast. “She had just got her period that day and had hung on to a tampon she’d found on the floor of the bathroom at the surf club for nearly a month,” she recalls. “She was so grateful for a packet of pads and tampons, she was bawling.”
HYGIENE AND HEARTACHE
Courtenay discovered the woman had left her husband because she was a victim of domestic violence, and was living in her car with her three children. “I was so naïve then,” she says. “I didn’t realise that most homeless women are in the situation because of domestic violence. I have since met 16-year-old girls who don’t want to live with their parents because of domestic violence.”
Next Courtenay contacted feminine hygiene company Cottons and now the phone number for the 1800RESPECT family violence counselling service is printed on all Cottons’ tampon packs. Courtenay hopes other companies will follow.
Share the Dignity also distributes to women’s refuges and teenage girls in foster care, and pays for the funerals of domestic violence victims.
“What we do is a bandaid solution,” says Courtenay. “People should always have a home; they should always have somewhere to escape to.”