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Sanitary items a matter of necessity, not shame

Geelong Doorways case worker Olivia Costa with period and continence products for distribution to the community.

A recent interim report on poverty in Australia highlighted the impact on those left facing their menstrual periods without access to sanitary items.

Menstrual products are a commonly needed item for those experiencing disadvantage, Salvation Army Doorways staff say.

The Senate report released on 4 May was the result of an inquiry referred to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee in September 2022.

Rita, a witness who spoke to a public hearing for the inquiry, said there was a myth that poverty just caused hunger.

“Poverty is being a woman and having to wear bits of rag when you have your period because you can’t afford pads or tampons,” Rita said.

Geelong Doorways team leader Narelle Fromholtz said her team provided period products in toiletry bags for many families they assisted, accounting for each member of the family who needed them. She said these included pads, tampons and sometimes longer-term solutions such as menstrual cups and period undies where conditions allowed for them to be properly sanitised.

Narelle said without access to period products, many school students choose not to attend school during their periods, which negatively impacts their education.

“If you can’t afford period products, where else are you struggling?” – Narelle Fromholtz.

A submission to the interim report from the South Australian Commissioner for Children and Young People Helen Connolly told how lacking access to sanitary items affected the education and social lives of young people experiencing poverty.

“Not having clothes, toys, digital devices or access to the internet or period products sets them apart from their peers and are significant barriers to their participation at school, in social outings and extracurricular activities,” the Commissioner said.

Narelle said not only did those in the Geelong area who accessed Doorways services often experience a lack of access to menstrual products, but also continence products as well. She said offering such products opened a conversation that could lead to more assistance.

Narelle said her team had been able to provide bedding solutions for adults and children experiencing incontinence and had been able to direct adults experiencing incontinence to medical services and access to free products under the Continence Aids Payment Scheme. She said these products were otherwise expensive.

Most disadvantaged suburb

The suburb of Norlane in northern Geelong, where the Doorways service operates, topped recent Census data compiled in the Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA) to be listed as the most disadvantaged suburb in Victoria.

Lieutenant Alison Templar from Brunswick Doorways said she had seen women who were very desperate for sanitary items, and no one had yet declined when they were offered. She said it was powerful for those who were sleeping rough or had teenage daughters to be able to access pads or tampons without drama. Alison said when recipients were offered the products, there was often a palpable look of relief on their faces.

Brunswick Asylum Seeker and Refugee Service centre manager Major Karen Elkington said providing the right kind of sanitary items was important when dealing with those from diverse backgrounds.

“It’s mostly young Western women who use tampons,” she said. “It’s not actually something that all women from culturally diverse backgrounds [use].”

‘Barbaric’ situation

Not-for-profit organisation Share the Dignity collects donated sanitary and period products to distribute to those experiencing disadvantage across Australia, including through Salvation Army centres. Founder and managing director Rochelle Courtenay said having access to sanitary items was just as important as having access to toilet paper. She said she was shocked when she first heard in 2015 how those experiencing homelessness often could not access sanitary items.

“I never thought of that,” she said. “I just find that barbaric that that would happen anywhere in the world, let alone here in Australia, the lucky country.”

Rochelle said she had heard of women who had stolen socks from laundromats to handle their periods and had been forced to steal maternity pads after giving birth.

“There’s so much shame in menstruation,” she said. “That’s one of the really big things that we’ve been really working hard to change the narrative around.”


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