The Spotlight series brings you Rochelle Courtenay, an Australian philanthropist who has devoted her life to addressing "period poverty" among Australia's underserved population.
Rochelle believes that period poverty is not just a female issue, it is a societal issue. She stresses that "even if you don't get your period, you come from someone who did." She believes that no woman or girl should be deprived of the right of access to sanitary items.
Rochelle describes herself as that naughty kid who challenged every conversation that a teacher would have, not just those that she didn't like. "What I loved most in school was playing netball and spending time with my friends," she says. After graduating from 12th grade, she chose to define her own path and never proceeded to university. Rochelle spent most of her adult life doing business development or marketing. She has two daughters, ages 21 and 19, and four stepchildren after recently remarrying. After realizing that menstruation presented a big problem among Australia's most vulnerable population, Rochelle decided to make it her mission to address this issue.
What inspired you to found Share the Dignity?
Rochelle Courtenay (RC): I was literally inspired by a story online by MamaMia (Australia's largest independent women's media group), which talked about how many homeless women there were in Australia. We call Australia a lucky country, but there were at that stage 48,000 women who did not have somewhere safe to call home. What shocked me more was that they were using newspapers, socks, and toilet paper to deal with their period, and I just couldn't believe that any of that could ever happen in Australia. I had several of my own businesses but I decided to fully immerse myself in Share the Dignity. I started a campaign to collect sanitary items in my local community. We collected 450 packets of pads and tampons, which we distributed to five different charities. It is our model to help and work alongside the charities. We are a community and when we all work together, incredible things happen. We work with homeless shelters, homelessness hubs and poverty-stricken schools. That is how it started out four years ago the first of March, and it has been a whirlwind. I never expected things to explode the way they did. We just hit the ground running, with a group of all these amazing women along the way. So far we have collected 1.7 million packets of pads and tampons and have 4,100 Sheros (volunteers) across Australia who help with outreach and distribution.
How does your model work?
RC: Around Christmas time, we do an appeal called "It's in the Bag." We ask Australians to give a pre-loved handbag filled with basics that we believe every woman should have to feel feminine. You can pop in extra items like lip balm, notebooks, deodorant, soap, a scarf, sunglasses, and sunscreen, whatever you need to make you feel feminine. People have generously given to help a sister out. We make it easy for people to help. For the four years that Share the Dignity has existed, we have distributed supplies worth 45 million Australian dollars in donations.
What are the next steps for Share the Dignity?
RC: We want to take it global. We want to be able to take what we do in Australia to support people in other parts of the world and to be able to encourage others to Share the Dignity. The biggest challenge right now, however, is to figure out how we can all do this together as women, how we can measure the impact of what we do, so that in five years' time we have a completely different conversation. All we need is all the incredible women in the world to believe that they can jump on board the dignity train and make a difference in their community, and that we will give them all the tools to do it.
How might the WHAMglobal Spotlight Forum advance this work?
RC: We need to pilot this in other different countries, maybe two or three, and get those strategic connections. Not just going out there and saying, "Yes, let us do this, or that." So getting those connections with two or three passionate people is really helpful. It is never just about what I am giving you but what you can make of it. It is that conduit that is really important ... and that is what I expect from this network.
What have you found as your biggest challenges?
RC: The biggest challenge has been the media's inability to want to talk about periods, like on TV. A period is something people don't want to talk about at breakfast or dinner time -- but we do, because it is a problem we want to address. But finally, we were successful in 2017 in abolishing the 10% goods-and-services tax on sanitary items. That got us a lot of media attention, which was fabulous. We have eventually developed a strong relationship with the media especially because of our "It's in the Bag" and what goes in it because we are not talking about just periods, we are talking about health, kindness and the basics of dignity.
What legacy do you want to leave behind?
RC: As a leader, I love to see myself as a role model who is able to help our volunteers be the best version of themselves. It is just as important to me to be important to them as it is for them to be important to the women who need our help because they are our local heroes who make our work happen. I want to leave a legacy that every girl has the right to an education and they should not have to miss out because of the lack of sanitary items. One other interesting legacy with this program is that we have also got male volunteers who have jumped on board and become big advocates.
Are there any mentors you can say motivated/inspired you to take on such a challenge?
RC: I have many mentors in my life. I wouldn't say I am lucky, but I am exceptionally grateful for really true friends I have known since I was 5. Those who I count on to always know I need them even when I don't know that I need them, those great friends who are passionate about helping take Share the Dignity forward; from Kelly who does time management with me, to Susan, our board chair who is the most amazing and incredible mentor friend, the list goes on and on. Again, when women believe in something incredible, things happen because they all just want to lift each other up. There are so many different things to believe in, there are so many different causes that float people's boats, but as long as we are in the same boat it doesn't matter.
What do you see as your accomplishments?
RC: The fact that we do not rely on government funding, and the smiles and the dignity that we give women is priceless. Seeing a photo of a woman who has received a bag or reading a story of a woman who has fled domestic violence with nothing right from the very basics reminds me why I do what I do, especially when I am tired with my mind running a million miles an hour in cranky pants. I realize I am not just doing it for myself, I do it for those women who just need the very basic dignities. I wish we could do more, but I know that is what we are good at and we need to specialize that and help other people who do what they do best. If we all just support each other that way, we surely can all help each other do what we all are supposed to do.
What message do you have for women leaders out there trying to make a difference?
RC: All this I do is out of passion, not because I have a university degree. I am only a 12th grade graduate and I focus on doing what I am good at and do it best. And all the things that I am not good at, I surround myself with other women who are good at them. My mentor friends are like my backup dancers and we all believe that when we work together, great things happen.
What are you up to for 2019?
RC: Two years ago, we designed, installed, and implemented our first dignity machine: a vending machine that dispenses a free period pack that contains two pads and six tampons, what we deem as enough for a day. We now have 100 of them installed around Australia, specifically in domestic violence shelters, in homelessness centers, but also in areas we know that women will definitely need them. That is a big part of our move in 2019; the plan is to roll out 100 more vending machines, just in schools.
We are launching this campaign on International Women's Day, March 8, with two fundraising events.
You too can be part of this campaign to end period poverty in Australia's underserved populations by participating in the my cause fundraiser in the afternoon of International Women's Day. Also, join us the evening of International Women's Day at Cranbourne Turf Club for a Race Night to support "Share the Dignity" charity. Details and registration here.
This Forum is an initiative of the Women's Health Activist Movement Global (WHAMglobal), a supporting organization of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation in Pittsburgh. WHAMglobal is committed to profiling members of WHAMglobal, the International Women's Forum (IWF) special interest group on health care, and Women of Impact for Healthcare. Through the Spotlight Forum, we will share members' inspiring stories and accomplishments, identify common interests, and form new partnerships that help make health care safer, higher quality, more accessible, and more compassionate.
Questions? Ideas? Want to share your story?
Contact Hanifa Nakiryowa, Global Health Associate: nakiryowa@JHF.org