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Tuesday, 15 August 2017
Page: 5713

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE (South Australia) (19:49): A few weeks ago, I had the great privilege of meeting with Rochelle Courtenay, who is the founder of Share the Dignity, a charity that distributes menstrual hygiene products to women and girls in need, Australia wide. Rochelle's message to me was clear: we, as policymakers and legislators, must do more to help disadvantaged and vulnerable women and girls to safely and hygienically manage their periods.

The stories Rochelle can tell to support this plea are harrowing. She recalls meeting a woman who had fled a violent relationship in her car, who explained that she had no choice but to improvise when she had her period. This woman sourced a pile of napkins, tore them down to size and laid several on top of each other before rolling them and inserting them as a makeshift tampon. Here's a woman who, after years of abuse, bravely fled her marital home with only the clothes on her back. She's isolated and she's scared, and she's stuck creating tampons from napkins because she simply cannot afford to buy the real thing. It's demeaning; it's unhygienic; and, to quote Rochelle, 'Where's the dignity in that?'

Rochelle also told me that she'd spoken to a South Australian doctor who said it was not uncommon for women and girls to suffer significant medical problems because they did not have access to pads and tampons during their periods. This doctor, who is based at one of Adelaide's major metropolitan hospitals, says that disadvantaged women and girls present to emergency departments with toxic shock syndrome, which can be fatal if it's not treated immediately. For the uninitiated: toxic shock syndrome is a rare and life-threatening form of blood poisoning. For women, toxic shock syndrome most commonly occurs in those who, to put it bluntly, do not or cannot change their tampons often enough. It's hard to believe that here in the lucky country a woman or a girl could be gravely ill or even die simply because she couldn't change her tampon. That's not hyperbole; it's not overkill; that's the sad reality for thousands of women and girls. Period poverty is here, and we need to do something about it.

In July this year the Scottish government announced that it would distribute free menstrual hygiene products to those in need as part of a six-month pilot program in Aberdeen. Launched by the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, Angela Constance, the pilot scheme will make tampons and other sanitary items easily accessible to those who need them but cannot afford them. Pads and tampons will be funded by the Scottish government and provided for free at selected locations, such as secondary schools, shelters and food banks. It's the first program of its kind in the United Kingdom, and it's expected to help approximately 1,000 women and girls in its six-month trial. The Scottish government has recognised that to date its policies in this area have fallen short of what is needed to even begin to tackle period poverty.

The fact is that the situation described in Aberdeen is not at all dissimilar to the situation here in Australia. It's not unheard of for homeless and disadvantaged women and girls in Australia to suffer the indignity of using newspapers or dried leaves as makeshift pads. Some women steal these items. Some girls stay at home from school because their families cannot afford them. A similar pilot program in Australia would represent the first step in developing a sensitive and dignified solution to making these products easily accessible to those who need them.

That's why I'm calling on the federal government to fund a similar trial here in Australia, and that's why it was so incredibly disappointing today that, when the government refused to support my motion for a trial, it claimed that funding for pads and tampons for disadvantaged girls and women did not meet the guidelines for the Public Health and Chronic Disease Grant Program family-planning activity. The last time I checked, periods weren't a chronic disease or a family-planning activity; however, they are a public health issue. That's why I'm baffled as to why the government thinks it cannot fund the pilot program. I'll be pursuing this matter further.

As a nation, we can't let the rise in period poverty continue. Australia can do better. Australian women and girls deserve better. Menstrual hygiene products are a necessity, and access to these should be a right, not a privilege.