For decades, women have struggled to discuss menstruation due to its stigma in society. Advocates for women’s rights believe this has affected their access to affordable or free menstrual products while condoms for men are widely and openly available in public places.
Now, in 2022, while periods are cast in a more positive light and multiple organisations provide women with options to assist with their periods, especially those facing period poverty, free condoms still lurk in female bathrooms where pads and tampons should be.
So why in this new era of enlightenment about periods do women have to tolerate very limited free access to emergency sanitary products in public toilets while there’s no shortage of free condoms? Let’s examine the situation.
Condoms are a form of contraception important for preventing sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies. According to Spafe, condoms cost as little as 50 cents each in Australia as of 2021.
A 2019 survey by OnePoll found Australian women spend an average of $19.54 on menstrual products each month. This adds up to $9379.73 over the course of an average woman’s reproductive period from ages 12 to 52 years.
OnePoll’s survey shows due to the high price of menstrual products, 60 per cent of women said they have had to make sacrifices in spending to afford sanitary items, and almost 80 per cent had to go without suitable items to manage their period at some point throughout their life. Toilet paper, socks, and clothing are some of the alternative sanitary products women have been left to use to aid their bleeding.
According to the Department of Health and Aged Care, Australia’s health system is one of the best in the world, providing safe and affordable health care for all Australians. However, women all over the country still face insecurity when it comes to period products.
The Western Australian Aids Commission is a counselling and emotional support service offering assistance to the LGBTQIA+ community and those living with HIV. With a focus on relationships and safe sex practices, the company provides free condoms to the public at all its locations across the state.
WAAC Health Promotion Officer Nick Gow says its volunteers package condoms into ‘safe sex packs’ which includes instructions on correct condom use as well as facts around STIs. A minimum of 80,000 of these packs are delivered to multiple organisations, programs, and populations across WA.
“They benefit the priority populations who are at increased risk of STI’s and HIV,” Gow says.
“Condoms can be an added cost which some may not have access to, they also act as a reminder to stay safe and raise awareness of STIs to the public.”WAAC Health Promotion Officer Nick Gow
“We do this to ensure equity and equality in the sexual health space for marginalised and at-risk communities and prevent the spread of STIs and HIV in the community.”
Results from a study by Melbourne Period Project show there are more than 100,000 homeless Australians with women accounting for 44 per cent of this population.
They face higher health risks and lower access to health services compared to the rest of the Australian population. This includes a lack of access to necessary menstrual products. As a result, homeless women and trans men are forced to use unsanitary and unsuitable facilities to ease their menstrual needs which leads to further infection.
According to a survey by Water Aid Australia, almost half the global population menstruates at some point in their life, yet two-thirds of women feel uncomfortable openly carrying their period products to public bathrooms.
The survey shows 55 per cent of women would feel uncomfortable talking to their male boss about their period and period pain while only 14 per cent of men would feel uncomfortable seeing a female friend or family member carrying a menstrual product in public.
Girls across the nation start their first period as young as 12 years old and in some cases even younger. School-aged children face the embarrassment of having to ask their teachers for help in an environment where menstrual products aren’t so accessible and other students may not understand.
Share the Dignity’s ‘The Big Bloody Survey Report’ showed almost half of respondents missed at least one day of school because of their period. More than 70 per cent had difficulty paying attention in class because of a lack of appropriate sanitary care.
In August 2022, Premier Mark McGowan announced an initiative to roll out free period products for public secondary schools across WA, providing students from Years 7 to 12 with free pads and tampons from Term 1, 2023.
While this is a step forward to eradicating period poverty, WA is the last state to introduce any government-funded initiatives in providing free menstrual products in schools, lacking behind the rest of Australia.
Share the Dignity is an Australian charity which aims to end period poverty through its movements and programs. The charity provides support to those facing homelessness, fleeing domestic violence, or inability to access necessities like menstrual products. Because the WA government had not made any progress surrounding this issue until recently, the charity has taken on a lot of the weight in the state.
Share the Dignity Founder and Managing Director Rochelle Courtenay says the charity aims to not only provide free services and products for those in need, but it also works to spread awareness about period poverty, eradicate the stigma around periods, and educate boys and girls about menstruation.
She says Share the Dignity works with big companies like Woolworths, Google and Facebook to spread their advocacy work to a huge market, drawing in ordinary Australians to get involved in the movements.
Courtenay says the lack of free menstrual products is the root of a lot of issues including poverty and distress for regular Australians. It affects so many populations from students and ordinary women to their family members and co-workers, so there needs to be better awareness around its true cost.
“We currently give half a million menstrual and incontinence products to around 3,000 charities in Australia which are then distributed to those in need. But those in need need to then ask for them or shop for them, but our vending machines are stored in bathrooms. You don’t need to ask for them and you can help yourself with all the dignity it deserves,” she says.
“Whilst we still haven’t combatted the full problem of eradicating period poverty here in Australia, we’re certainly a long way along.”Share the Dignity Founder and Managing Director Rochelle Courtenay
Crossways Community Services in Kelmscott, WA is one of more than 300 locations across Australia which houses Share the Dignity’s pad and tampon vending machines in its bathroom.
Crossways Community Services coordinator Karen Vam Mederveem says the centre provides a range of services and programs for the local community. It has a second-hand shop and meeting place where those in need can go to access free and cheaper food, clothing, and household items, as well as sanitary items and toiletries.
She says the vending machine was installed earlier this year and has already helped local women manage their period with privacy and convenience.
“It’s a really good idea because women can get the items for themselves instead of having to ask,” Vam Mederveem says.
“We encourage the public to bring in unopened menstrual products like pads and tampons which we will take and donate to all who need them.”Crossways Community Services coordinator Karen Vam Mederveem
Move for Dignity is an annual fundraiser by Share the Dignity inviting women to register as an individual or as a team and partake in exercise to bring awareness to period poverty in Australia. This year’s event is running for the month of October and many women have been taking on the challenge to raise money those doing it tough.
Amelia Stubbs has worked closely with Share the Dignity as a participant and fundraiser over the past few years and is participating in this year’s event to push herself physically as well as advocating for change. She got involved in the movement as she believes in the importance of physical activity and wants to share the word to other Australians to just give it a go.
Stubbs says she has faced period poverty herself and it’s frustrating to see herself and other women endure such a lack of access to essential sanitary products, particularly in public bathrooms.
“Hygiene is important so I think the vending machines are such a good idea because it will help women like me.”
In 2020, Scotland announced the Period Products Act and became the first country on the globe to make menstrual products free for everyone.
In a YoungScot survey, results showed 65 per cent of girls and young women received menstrual products free of charge from their school, college or university in the first year since the bill was introduced. Almost all participants admitted they were less worried about their periods, and more than half said it has made their day-to-day life much easier.
This was a global milestone that inspired England to follow suit, making period products free for all primary and secondary students in the same year.
After a long campaign to end period poverty in the UK began in 2016, Australian organisations are pushing for the same back home to make both condoms and menstrual products equally available to the public.
The Department of Education and The Department of Health were approached for comment.