Consider these figures for a moment.
- On any given night, in Australia, 1/200 people are homeless, nearly half of whom are women.
- Domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness. Almost 2 million Australians (2013 figures) over 15 have experienced violence in the home – and the majority of victims are women and children.
When women are forced to flee their homes, finding the the money to buy essential sanitary items such as pads and tampons often ends up, by necessity, weighed against other essentials, like food.
Instead, at ‘that time of the month’ women who’ve become homeless make do by stuffing newspaper, toilet paper or socks in their underwear.
Two years ago, Brisbane mum and personal trainer, Rochelle Courtenay, read an article published by MamaMia that highlighted the rarely talked about topic of how women who were homeless dealt with their menstrual cycles.
“I just couldn’t believe that this was happening in Australia and I couldn’t believe that anybody would read something about it and not want to help.”
Rochelle started collecting packs of pads and tampons at the gym where she worked, with the simple plan of donating these to women who were homeless. But support for what she was doing quickly grew.
“I’m not an over-thinker,” she said.
“It was just a matter of ‘I think we can do that’.
“I didn’t set out to have a great big charity; I just wanted to help fix the problem,” Rochelle said.
“Never in a million years did I think that when I wanted to collect pads and tampons to give out to women in need that I’d need to have a licence in every state, a board of directors, a constitution, pay permit fees. I didn’t know all that.
“But, should I have waited and waited to have done all of those correctly Share the Dignity wouldn’t be around.”
From a simple desire to ‘do something’ and the first local collection of 450 packs of pads and tampons, Share the Dignity has developed into a strong public voice for women’s issues – particularly domestic violence and homelessness – and an advocate for making a practical impact where help is needed most.
Like, for example:
The twice-yearly Dignity Drive – now on, by the way, where sanitary items are collected nationwide for women made homeless, particularly by domestic violence.
“I’ve seen the joy in somebody’s face when I’ve handed her a packet of tampons, like I’m giving her a million dollar check. Every single packet makes a difference.”
Raising funds to pay for the funerals of domestic violence victims.
Making it easier to escape domestic violence
Helping women get help in domestic violence situations, by discreetly providing the number for 1800 Respect on the inside of the flip-top lids of Cottons’ brand tampons.
The annual ‘It’s in the Bag’ campaign, where Australians are asked to donate a handbag they no longer use and fill it with toiletries and other items, to help other women feel a little more special.
#PinkBox Period Packs Dispenser
And, the ‘Pink Box’ period pack dispenser.
Last year, 85,000 women accessed homeless services. The ‘Pink Box’ vending machines aim to make it easier for women to access the sanitary items they need.
The machines are being rolled out across Australia this year and are partially funded by handbags that Share the Dignity also sells on its site.
“Every time somebody buys a handbag with heart it allows us to be able to help a woman in need. Now, would you rather buy a handbag that makes the CEO a little bit more money? Or, one that every time you look into your handbag your heart can burst with pride in the fact that you know that you’ve helped a woman in need.”
Rochelle credits the success of Share the Dignity to its volunteers, the ‘sheroes’ and ‘heroes’ who support Share the Dignity’s mission by organising events, coordinating collections and offering their specific skills pro bono.
“We can’t do it without volunteers,” said Rochelle.
“You know, even you writing this story, you’ve just joined the dignity chain – so many people who have made Share the Dignity what it is. For every story that it written, for every volunteer that picks up a pad or tampon, it shares the dignity in whatever way that they have the skill to do so.”
“They’ve all got angel wings and they’re legends and that’s why we can do the work that we do.”
Marketing – real stories, human connections
Rochelle manages much of the marketing herself and has grown the charity’s Facebook presence to more than 90,000 followers in just two years.
“Share the Dignity wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for Facebook and social media,” Rochelle said.
“What would I have done? Pay for an ad in the paper back in the day? And said, ‘Can you all bring your pads and tampons somewhere?’ It’s connected Australian women in a heartbeat to the collection points, to be volunteers, to, ‘Oh I want to do that, how do I do that?’
“Without it we wouldn’t even be around. Most people will slag social media and say ‘oh my God, it’s terrible nowadays.’ But, you know what? It’s been amazing for us.”
Encouraging others to support Share the Dignity’s goals hasn’t been difficult at all, says Rochelle, and simply comes down to “connecting with different people on what it means to them to ‘share the dignity’ as well”.
“The content that we have comes from the heart, it doesn’t come from anywhere other than stories which we’ve been touched by.”
The Kindness of Others
One of the biggest lessons that Rochelle says Share the Dignity has taught her is that people are essentially kind.
“I just think there’s so much good in people, in a world where often all we see is the shit bits,” she said.
“But, it’s really not the case – there’s lots and lots of really good people out there and they really want to help, we just have to find a way that makes it easy for them to [offer] that help.
“You can see that through our volunteers, you can see it through 107,000 handbags that were donated. Every single one of those handbags could easily have been around a few hundred dollars donated each – that’s seven million dollars that was donated by women just at Christmas time. That’s a lot of money.
“But, it’s not just about the money, it’s about the heart connection,” she said.
“It’s about the fact that there are so many kind people out there and that they want to help.”
Throughout April, #SharetheDignity is conducting its twice-yearly Dignity Drive. At 2000 collection points throughout Australia, you can drop off a pack of pads or tampons, which will be distributed to women in need.
No woman should have to do without the simple dignity of attending to their periods. To find your nearest collection point go to http://www.sharethedignity.com.au/dignitydrive.html.
Next week, Rachelle Panitz, and the story behind the So Brave breast cancer fundraising calendar.