news

Before the pandemic, Ashleigh couldn't afford sanitary items. She is terrified for next March.

This post deals with sexual assault and might be triggering for some readers. 

When Ashleigh Rae had her period, she had to find whatever she could to prevent leakage. 

Paper towels. Tissues. Toilet paper. Or, if even those were in scarce supply, she would wear what she had for a longer duration. 

“Which is not healthy,” the 30-year-old points out. 

Ashleigh lived in poverty for the five years prior to 2020, while on JobSeeker, formerly known as Newstart.

The poverty line in Australia is around $816 a fortnight, according to the Australian National University. Ashleigh was significantly under this, averaging just under $500 a fortnight for the past six years - or an annual income of about $13,000. The payment has not been increased in real teams on a permanent basis since 1994. 

Along with pads and tampons, there were numerous necessities she couldn’t afford, including a bra. 

“I couldn’t even go to the cheapest of the cheap stores and buy a bra. We just went without so much.”

Ashleigh explains the experience of poverty is “an enormous crushing weight”.

“It is completely undignified and it dehumanises you.”

Ashleigh is 30 years old and lives in Melbourne, Australia. Image: Supplied.

About four times a week, the Melburnian woman she would skip a meal.

“I would go without meals so that my partner would have food to eat so he could go to work and not be hungry; so that at least one of us could be functional,” she explains, adding her partner runs sports incursions for schools. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“You lose your functionality with poverty, because it is exhausting. I know the feeling of hunger all too well.”

Ashleigh isn’t alone in this experience. A survey by Anglicare Australia, released this week, found that 72 per cent of Centrelink recipients were skipping meals each week on the old rate of JobSeeker. The same survey found one in ten respondents were couch surfing. 

Fortunately for Ashleigh, she has stable accommodation - but she also fears the possibility of it being taken away. 

“I'm lucky in the sense that I live in an apartment that is owned by a family member, so the rent is affordable at $975 a month between us. But we've had the discussion many times that if we have to leave for any reason, we don't have anywhere to go. We would be homeless because we can't afford rent anywhere in Melbourne.”

This year, Ashleigh and her partner were one of the thousands of Australians who were pulled out of poverty thanks to the government’s financial response to the pandemic. In March, the Centrelink unemployment rate doubled when the government introduced the coronavirus supplement, which added an extra $550 per fortnight to the bank accounts of welfare recipients. 

Ashleigh recalls crying - almost in disbelief - when the extra money first landed in her bank account. One of the first things she did with the money was invest in reusable sanitary items. 

“I bought recyclable pads so that I would never be in a position again where I had to resort to toilet paper.” 

She also bought herself some bras. 

“It has been so good to be able to just chuck one on and walk down the street and not worry about people gawking at me.”

Ashleigh says the relief the supplement brought to her quality of life is immeasurable. 

“We're not worried about being homeless. We're not worried about being able to afford groceries. We now have three meals a day. It gave me the ability to live with more dignity.”

But Ashleigh also knows that time is limited. The coronavirus supplement has gradually been reduced, and in January, it will go down to $150 per fortnight for three months. What happens beyond March 2021 is yet to be announced by Prince Minister Scott Morrison.

For Ashleigh, the mere thought of JobSeeker returning to the old rate has been enough to trigger panic attacks. 

“Nobody wants to sit there and seriously contemplate that they could be homeless within six months.”

Watch: The hidden numbers of women and violence. Post continues below video. 


Video via Mamamia.
ADVERTISEMENT

As the new name suggests, JobSeeker is mainly for those who are “looking for work,” according to the government. But Ashleigh has been unable to work for almost all of her adult life, thanks to chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. 

When she was 13 years old, she was sexually abused by a man she met on a family camping trip.

Michael Johnson, then 18, repeatedly raped the Year 8 student and as a result, she experienced debilitating trauma. 

“My brain just locked those memories away and forgot about them, because it was so horrific. Then in 2013, those memories started to surface.”

In 2013, Ashleigh suffered a mental breakdown which led to her diagnosis of chronic PTSD. 

“I was no longer able to participate in the workplace in the same way,” she explains. “Many employers don't understand how to work with anyone who is going through a mental health crisis or condition. The workplace I was part of really railroaded me out of my job. They didn't want to work with anyone who was going to have a complex life outside of the workplace and who had different needs.”

A photo of Ashleigh in school, taken weeks after the sexual assault had ended. Image: Supplied.

ADVERTISEMENT

Plus, due to her poverty, she couldn’t afford the right mental health services, or antidepressants, to help her recovery. Ashleigh had access to the Medicare mental health system, which allowed ten therapy sessions a year before the pandemic, but when she pursued that path, she landed in the hands of a therapist who “did more harm than good”. 

The past seven years, since her mental health breakdown, has been about recovery. In 2017, she went to the police for the second time about the abuse she had suffered as a child. Charges were laid and her perpetrator Michael Johnson pleaded guilty, earlier this year, to three counts of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and one count of an indecent act with a child. 

But Ashleigh’s recovery process doesn’t end with her rapist’s sentence. Compounding her distress is her poverty, and the fact that Centrelink does not support sexual violence survivors on the Disability Support Pension. Her only option is JobSeeker.

Whilst she certainly hopes to find a job that will suit her, she also doesn’t want to be forced into a position that she knows she can’t cope with. 

“When I was with job service providers, they were really pushing me to get into jobs like manufacturing and forklift driving. Those are jobs I absolutely can't do because my body won't cope with it. Because of the experiences I've had, my brain is constantly in a state of being acutely aware of how anything and everything in my environment could be a threat.”

So what is Ashleigh’s message to the government? 

“We're a very lucky country in the sense that we have the infrastructure to deliver payments to people that need it. But we have a real hatred of people whose only crime is that they weren't born with a silver spoon in their mouth. And for whatever reason, we don't afford them basic dignity.

“The greatest judge of a nation is how it treats its vulnerable. And right now, we treat our vulnerable people with disdain and disgust, and they don't deserve that.” 

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. 

You can also call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

Feature image: Supplied. 


Sign up for the "Mamamia Daily" newsletter. Get across the stories women are talking about today.



00:00 / ???