Nearly 20 years after the Howard government decided that tampons were “luxury items” under the GST, social attitudes to menstruation in Australia remain avoidant at best and determinedly Neanderthal at worst. Beyond the sheer lameness of many people’s collective squeamishness, the general tendency to avoid discussion of menstruation can have very practical ramifications. And it’s the least privileged who suffer.
“Sanitary items are often the very last things to get donated [to homeless shelters],” says Amy Rust, co-founder of Adelaide-based charity Essentials 4 Women SA. “People just don’t think about it. But when [shelters] do have those items, they’re the very first things to get taken.”
Essentials 4 Women SA aims to alleviate the problems raised by one of the less-discussed aspects of homelessness: what to do when you get your period. It’s exactly the kind of small but vital organisation that gets funding from StreetSmart’s national CafeSmart program, which all starts with a simple cup of coffee. The one-day fundraising campaign, returning on August 9 this year, asks cafes across Australia to donate $1 for every coffee sold to a local grassroots organisation dealing with issues around homelessness. Coffee roasters also join in to donate some of the beans, while customers are encouraged to match the cafe’s $1-per-coffee contribution.
Rust and Essentials 4 Women SA co-founder Kelly Peacock started the service after seeing a similar program in the UK. “We gave a couple of the homeless shelters around Adelaide a call to see if women not being able to access sanitary items was also a problem here,” says Rust. “They said that it was.”
It’s both depressing and sadly unsurprising that even in a country as wealthy as Australia, sanitary items remain expensive enough to be out of reach for many who live in poverty, and that very little assistance is provided to get them into the hands of those in need.
“Even myself as a woman, I just wouldn’t have even thought about it,” Rust says. “You just think, ‘It’s so basic, and you can’t go without it …’ You just assume that it’d be available for free, [in the same way that] condoms are given away for free at sexual health clinics and doctors’ surgeries. But no, they’re not. Not at all. Even other food banks and stuff, they hold toiletries – shampoo, soap, etc – but not sanitary items. It’s all a bit bizarre.”
Does Rust have any thoughts on why this is? “[Periods] are still a bit taboo, I guess?” she says, sighing. “I don’t know. I’ve been doing this for four years and I still haven’t figured it out.”
Essentials 4 Women SA takes direct action to address the problem: they collect donations of sanitary items, and then put together monthly Period Packs, which contain a mixture of pads, liners, overnight pads, disposal bags and a small chocolate. The money that the charity received from StreetSmart is largely put toward these packs. “The products are donated,” Rust says. “But the bags they go in, the stickers, the chocolates … We don’t really ask for money from the public, [because] people are cynical these days about charities. They like the idea of buying a product, [rather than donating money] ... they know that they’re donating that product, and it can’t be misappropriated or whatever."
Once the packs are completed, they’re sent off to those in need. “Our stuff goes into homeless and domestic violence shelters,” Rust says. “We also send packs to remote Aboriginal communities, where stuff costs triple the price it does here ... so if it’s expensive here, [the price] is absolutely prohibitive up there.”
How can people help? “Donating items!” Rust says. “But obviously money helps, too. I think people generally prefer to do products, but cash donations are all tax deductible, and they really make a difference. We’re a small organisation; we all work full-time jobs, and we do this in and around life.”
Essentials 4 Women SA is just one of many organisations supported by CafeSmart, an initiative that unites the community over coffee to help fund local homelessness services. CafeSmart returns August 9. Find participating cafes here. Roasters can become partners here. Cafe owners can sign up to CafeSmart here.