Diya Khullar has a question.
“Why do tampons and pads in public restrooms cost money when toilet paper, which is equally necessary, is free?”
While toilet paper and paper towels are provided free of charge in every bathroom, tampons and sanitary pads are most often available to purchase from a dispenser in women’s bathrooms.
Khullar, a Northeastern student majoring in health science, sees an unfair discrepancy there, and she’s pretty direct in the way she spells it out.
“In my mind, urination, defecation, and menstruation are biological processes that shouldn’t be treated any differently from each other, because we can’t control any of them,” she said.
So, she has done something about it. Khullar led an effort to offer free tampons and sanitary pads in all the women’s restrooms across campus. With help from the university, dispensers in all women’s restrooms are now operating for free; previously, women had to pay to access them.
Mark Boulter, director of building services in Northeastern’s Facilities Division, oversaw this effort, which began by retrofitting the dispensers to supply tampons for free in women’s restrooms at some of the most crowded parts of campus. When it went smoothly, he set about to expand free access to tampons and sanitary pads across campus.
“This whole thing has made me realize that in the realm of public health, we can make small changes that have a huge impact.”
“It was just something that made so much sense,” Boulter said. “This is what it’s all about; we’re here to work with students to get great ideas off the ground.”
Boulter and Khullar aren’t the only ones to whom it makes sense. The Free the Tampons Foundation is a national organization whose mission is to make tampons and pads freely accessible in restrooms outside the home.
Khullar’s interest in the project began two years ago, during a class called “Community and Public Health.” For their final project, students in the course focus on investigating a current public health issue.
Khullar zeroed in on women’s health, quickly connecting with and seeking guidance from students who had also made tampons and pads available for free at other universities. Khullar partnered with Northeastern’s Feminist Student Organization whose secretary, Trea Lavery, worked closely with Khullar throughout the process.
They got in touch with Boulter to set the plan in motion.
“Something my dad always taught me is: ‘Just ask. You never know what could happen when you do.’ So, I did,” Khullar said.
In opening up access to such products, Khullar was also touching on a broader public health issue around the world, said Neil Maniar, director of the university’s Master of Public Health program.
“On the surface, something like this might seem pretty basic, but it speaks to a critical public health need,” Maniar said. “It should be completely unacceptable to us as a society to have products that are so important for health locked behind financial or statutory barriers.”
Maniar noted that good menstrual hygiene is crucial in combating serious health complications such as the bacterial infection known as Toxic Shock Syndrome.
Raising public awareness about these issues, as Khullar is doing with the question of tampons in restrooms, is all the more important, Maniar said, as the Trump administration backs proposals that would strip federal funding from clinics that administer abortions, and more generally limit access to reproductive health resources.
“When I think about what this student is doing, it just underscores the importance of individuals and organizations taking the initiative to implement innovative ways to tackle some of these barriers,” Maniar said. “By all means possible, we have to make sure there are no barriers in place that make women’s health inaccessible.”
Khullar’s not done yet. Her next goal is to provide free tampons and sanitary pads in the 86 gender-neutral restrooms on campus.
“I don’t want to stop at just women’s bathrooms,” she said. “I want to reach the entire population that menstruates, and that includes people who are transgender and gender non-conforming.”
In the meantime, Khullar said she learned a critical lesson.
“This whole thing has made me realize that in the realm of public health, we can make small changes that have a huge impact,” she said.