Indigenous Menstrual Health

Many remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities do not have access to clean water, working toilets, and cheap period products. At Share the Dignity, we are committed to giving all Australian's access to period products and ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have the tools they need to make this happen. We've worked with a team of researchers to assess the issue and understand how Share the Dignity can assist in empowering these communities with the tools and education they need to combat period poverty.

In many remote communities across Australia, the cost of period products is much higher due to freight costs and lack of competition in these areas. We distribute thousands of packets of period products to those in need in remote communities across the country to ensure that they are still empowered to take control of their period.

We've also committed to installing a number of our PinkBox Dignity Vending Machines into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island community centres to give them access to free period products if they are in need.

Indigenous Menstrual Health and Hygiene Program

Menstrual Health and Hygiene (MHH) aims to give the ability for women, young women and girls to use a clean material to absorb or collect menstrual blood, have access to menstrual hygiene products and underwear. Pair this with the privacy to change materials as frequently as required, and the provision of facilities for hand and body washing as well as the opportunity to discretely dispose of used materials. Menstrual hygiene products include pads, tampons, and re-usable items (such as menstrual cups, period underwear, and reusable pads).

In March 2018, Share the Dignity participated in a women’s yarning circle about MHH. Women attending included researchers from the University of Queensland, Central Queensland University, Johns Hopkins University and Leeds, members of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Alliance (NATSIWA), and Women on Country.

Menstrual management is a challenge to many Indigenous women, not only in remote communities but also in urban settings with multiple systematic and cultural barriers that hinder the path to better outcomes.

The yarning circle identified options to reduce and remove these barriers and Share the Dignity have made it a priority to play its part. Indigenous Menstrual Health Five key action areas were that were identified were:

  1. Access to products
  2. Culturally tailored education
  3. Promote pride for female bodies
  4. Advocate for policy action
  5. Improved access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

The Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies reinforces that communities vary in terms of priorities. In order to address Indigenous MHH throughout Australia, it is important to acknowledge that every individual community is different. Each has their own culture and way of sharing knowledge. 

It is important that relationships are established with each individual community from the outset to understand the local barriers and contexts. To meaningfully engage in this space, Share the Dignity committed to the following ways of working with our Indigenous communities:

  • Embrace self-determination among Indigenous Australians
  • Acknowledge Indigenous Australian culture and beliefs
  • Speak a language to a strengths-based approach
  • Continue to build rapport and relationships with communities
  • Continue to be invited to community, progress slowly, and maintain trust
  • Continue to be a critically reflective partner
  • Embrace self-determination among Indigenous Australians 

This is not a simple task. Many communities with high proportions of Indigenous Women aged 10 – 55 years also:

  • experience high rates of homelessness
  • are located in remote and very remote locations
  • have low socioeconomic status.

In Australia, 116,000 people reported being homeless on Census night in 2016, with 42 per cent of these being women. When looking at the map of homelessness across Australia, high rates can be seen across remote communities. Women experiencing homelessness are more likely to experience poor menstrual hygiene due to displacement, overcrowding, financial constraints, and poorer access to WASH infrastructure.

Indigenous Australians are ten times more likely to be homeless, and much more likely (70%) to live in ‘severely crowded’ homes than non-Indigenous Australians (42%).

In 2016, 10% of Australians were dispersed predominantly between Outer Regional (8%), Remote (1.2%), and Very Remote (0.8%) locations (18). While statistically, this proportion seems small, it still accounts for 494,953 Australians living in remote and very remote areas.

Women living in these regions have less access to MHH products having to travel greater distances. It has been reported that remoteness can increase the cost of menstrual hygiene products as much as 100%. In addition, they have poor access to pain relief, and either no access or extremely limited access to waste-free reusable products to help limit recurring monthly costs. 

Communities in remote locations are also likely to have poor access to WASH, poorer MHH education, and less privacy. Those who live in remote and very remote areas are more likely to be Indigenous Australians, who also experience additional barriers around MHH including cultural taboos and stigma.

For Indigenous Australian women, other factors like discrimination, racism, violence, as well as alcohol and drug use negatively impact social and emotional wellbeing, further hindering employment, living conditions and opportunities. Our Indigenous Australian population is also more likely to be unemployed, earn lower household incomes, and report receiving a government pension or allowance as their main source of income.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls who live in rural and remote communities are less likely to have access to affordable menstruation products. This results in the use of unhygienic alternatives and skipping school to avoid embarrassment. While the provision of menstrual products is imperative to women living in lower socioeconomic areas. 

To improve MHH overall, programs are needed to address the bigger social and economic picture, including the links to:

  • housing infrastructure (access to water, flushing toilets)
  • overcrowding (privacy)
  • healthy living practices (appropriate hygiene education and resources).

Effective relationships with Indigenous Australian communities develop from a shared understanding of an issue, and the identification of common goals through local engagement. To do this, Indigenous organisations are often the most visible key points of ‘engagement’ with communities, and this is also the preferred method of communication for Indigenous Australian people with outside organisations.

Planning with the community at a grass-roots level and working strategies from the ground up provides a level of autonomy for local groups to agree on priorities and hold a voice in their own community development.