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Will Canberra become the world’s most period-positive city?

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ACT woman Tahlia has lived a life of period poverty and period shame.

As a teen living with her father only, she resorted to stealing period products from her friends’ houses or relying on rolled-up wads of toilet paper. She recalls the humiliation and ridicule she experienced from classmates during the two times blood leaked onto her clothes. As an adult, she has masked her period symptoms of migraines and debilitating cramps at work. She feels judged by male pharmacists when she buys painkillers. She keeps all of these emotions to herself.

For Tahlia, and so many like her, moves by the ACT Government to make Canberra the most period-positive jurisdiction in the world cannot come soon enough.

On Thursday, Member for Yerrabi Suzanne Orr MLA will introduce a Private Members Bill, The Period Products and Facilities (Access) Bill 2022, which seeks to end period poverty in the ACT.

While a number of states are now providing free period products in schools (among them Victoria, Queensland and the ACT) this legislation will be a world-first, requiring the Government to take on the responsibility to provide access to period products for anyone who needs them—eradicating period poverty and also addressing the huge social stigma associated around menstruation.

Should the Bill pass, pads, tampons and other products will be provided free in designated public places, for example, public libraries. The legislation will also encourage other community service partners to also distribute period products.

Suzanne’s Bill builds on the initial suggestion of ACT Labor member Pradeep Sornaraj, a Tamil migrant who witnessed huge period poverty in India and who now runs a period product drive to distribute products to locals in need. Pradeep has been recognised for his work in dismantling the taboos around periods, wanting his daughter to grow up knowing no shame for a natural bodily process and wanting men to come to the table in terms of conversations, acceptance and support.

Suzanne said this week’s introduction of the bill would “make it feel real” after months of community consultation in which she was made aware of just how much stigma remained around the issue and where she read heartbreaking stories like Tahlia’s.

Suzanne Orr is introducing new period poverty legislation this week to the ACT Assembly.

According to data from Australia’s largest ever survey on attitudes and experiences of periods, the “Bloody Big Survey” published in July last year by Share the Dignity, period poverty in Australia requires urgent attention. While lack of access to basic hygiene and period products is an issue we tend to associate with developing countries, where millions of girls and women are ostracised during their period and it has lifelong impacts on learning and employment opportunities, the issue also impacts a surprisingly large sector of the community in Australia.

Disadvantaging the unemployed, university and TAFE students, homeless people, those displaced due to domestic violence and the LGBTQIA+ community, in particular, the Bloody Big Survey found half of all respondents had worn a tampon or pad for more than four hours because they had run out of period products and more than one in five had improvised with items such as socks, newspapers and toilet paper when they had run out of period products.

In the ACT, 15 per cent of respondents reported they had been unable to afford period products at some point in their lives.

Between 2018-2021, the ACT Share the Dignity Team worked with 245 local businesses and organisations to collect 46,021 period products and disseminate them to those in need.

Share the Dignity founder and managing director Rochelle Courtenay said the ACT’s proposed legislation was ground-breaking and welcome.

“Access to period products should be a right, not a privilege and it has been incredible to see MPs step up and acknowledge this through the Period Products Access Bill.

“Everyone should be able to manage their period with dignity and if the proposed legislation comes to fruition, the ACT will be put on the map globally for what needs to be done by Governments to work towards ending period poverty.”

While the Bill could take up to six months to pass (it will likely be referred to a committee, considered by government and need to be debated in the Assembly), it has bipartisan support in principle.

Nicole Lawder, Shadow Minister for Women, said “Everyone deserves access to menstrual products regardless of their income or location. We support the intent of this Bill and look forward to seeing the detail.”

For Suzanne, the work has seen her dismantle her own reluctance to talk about periods. She said once you begin the conversations they become more comfortable and less embarrassing. Breaking down stigma surrounding menstruation was an important part of the ACT’S legislative move.

“Period, period, period – I say it all the time now,” she laughed.

“But most women generally do not feel comfortable discussing periods. And yet it’s just a natural part of life.

“We also had feedback from many men who wanted to make women feel more comfortable about it, so it is important we have the conversation.”

She said the legislation would go further than just pads and tampons, improving access to the hygiene required to manage periods including providing adequate toilet and hand-washing facilities, particularly in male-dominated workplaces in the ACT. There would also be an information drive in different languages to ensure all cultural communities were aware of the changes.

“We are just scratching the surface on an issue we simply don’t talk about and yet it has implications for education access, it can have a big impact on work performance and outcomes and, of course, it can have major health consequences.

With more than 800 million people menstruating every single day, the ACT may be about to become the most period-positive city in the world.

Main Image by Cliff Booth via Pexels.

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