KATE EMERY: Is a bloody great trial over a $10 sanitary product theft really in the public interest?

Kate Emery
The Nightly
KATE EMERY: How out of touch must you be to think it’s a great use of police resources and taxpayer money to have an alleged tampon thief arrested, charged and the case potentially go to trial?
KATE EMERY: How out of touch must you be to think it’s a great use of police resources and taxpayer money to have an alleged tampon thief arrested, charged and the case potentially go to trial? Credit: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

How desperate do you need to be to steal $10 worth of sanitary pads or tampons?

Pretty bloody desperate. Emphasis on the bloody.

And how out of touch must you be to think it’s a great use of police resources and taxpayer money to have the alleged thief arrested, charged and the case potentially go to trial?

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This is what’s happening in Geraldton — a West Australian town nearly five hours north of Perth and about the size of Orange — where a 31-year-old woman has been charged with stealing sanitary products valued at $10 back in January.

The woman was unable to attend Geraldton Magistrates Court last week because she had COVID but her legal aid counsel, Veronica Randall, entered a plea of not guilty. Ms Randall told the court there had been negotiations for no charges to be pressed but, with the police prosecutor unable to confirm as much, a trial date has been set for next month.

You don’t want to know how many tampons you could buy for the cost of a trial. Seriously, don’t do those numbers.

Share the Dignity, the not-for-profit that campaigns to make sanitary products available for those who cannot afford them has already offered to cover any legal costs or fines arising out of this case — and to give the woman a year’s worth of free sanitary products if she wants them. She’ll probably be OK.

But this isn’t just about one woman, one bad decision, one packet of tampons.

It’s about who benefits when the police and the legal system decide to pursue a case like this and go after a woman who might just be desperate not to bleed through her knickers and spend days at a time sitting in her own blood, wondering if it’s going to stain her jeans. (I’m sorry to get graphic but the reality of menstruation, sadly, is not like the advertisements, with the sterile-looking pale blue liquid and the women merrily dancing in white pants. It’s messy, a bit gross, expensive and, for many women, it happens every damn month for decades.)

It’s also about the reality of period poverty and the huge number of Australian women who, for a variety of reasons, cannot afford or don’t have access to sanitary products.

Instead, they’re using napkins, wadded-up toilet paper, cut-up bits of cloth and even old mattress foam.

Others cut sanitary pads in half to make them last longer or leave tampons in well beyond what’s recommended — putting themselves at risk of the potentially deadly toxic shock syndrome.

Amid a cost-of-living crisis, Share the Dignity founder Rochelle Courtenay says she hears from women with well-paying jobs who can’t afford to buy what they need at that time of the month because paying the electricity bill, the mortgage, putting petrol in the car and food on the table for the kids comes before tampons or sanitary pads.

HEA Share the Dignity founder Rochelle Courtenay
HEA Share the Dignity founder Rochelle Courtenay Credit: Supplied/Supplied

“What we’re seeing is completely alarming,” she says.

Ms Courtenay finds it “disgusting” that a woman could be charged for allegedly stealing a product that she believes should be as freely available as toilet paper.

“It’s not OK to steal but it’s better than doing without,” she said. “I’d steal them. Wouldn’t you?”

It’s hard to argue.

The past five years have delivered some big wins in the fight against period poverty.

In 2019 the so-called “tampon tax” that classified sanitary products as luxury goods was axed, presumably when someone in Canberra spoke to a woman and realised there’s nothing luxurious about sanitary products.

State governments around the country have put free period products into high schools and, in some cases, primary schools and TAFE.

This year’s Federal Budget included $12.5 million over four years to deliver period products to rural and remote First Nations communities.

Things should be getting better.

But if things were getting better a 2021 Share the Dignity survey wouldn’t have found that a quarter of Aussie women have had to improvise on period products because of the cost.

If things were getting better Ms Courtenay wouldn’t be poised to release the results of the 2024 survey showing “things have gotten worse”.

If things were getting better a woman wouldn’t have been arrested, charged and facing trial over allegedly stealing sanitary products.

If things were getting better that woman would be stocking the cupboard with tampons and pads, not prepping for a trial over a $10 act of bloody desperation.

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