Shruthi Kumar.

Shruthi Kumar led a project that launched this fall ensuring all of Harvard’s female and gender-neutral bathrooms are regularly stocked with menstrual products.

Photos by Dylan Goodman

Campus & Community

Your period started. Of course the tampon dispenser is empty.

6 min read

All-too-familiar frustration for women sparked student’s campaign to make menstrual products in campus bathrooms as basic as toilet paper

It was just an average day for sophomore Shruthi Kumar in 2021 when she realized she had her period. Naturally, she checked the women’s restroom in Harvard’s Science Center for a menstrual product. What she found was an empty dispenser.

“I was like, why is this installed here if it’s not going to be restocked — if it’s not supporting me? And what do I do now? My options were to walk across Harvard Yard bleeding through my pants, to go to CVS to buy myself some, or to walk all the way to Mather House, which is my dorm, to get some from my room. Either way I’m going to be late to class,” she said.

And that got her thinking — other women must also be running into the same problem, interrupting their education.

“It really opened my eyes to a need on campus. And led me to think about ideas of infrastructural equity and what it means for women to be in educational spaces,” she said. “There’s a lot of invisible ways in which our system holds us back and I think this is one of those hidden inequities that is not as obvious as say, physical ailments or other types of public health inequities.”

According to a 2018 industry survey, one-third (38 percent) of women who menstruate had to miss events or activities over the course of a year — such as work, school, or an appointment — due to a lack of access to menstrual products. Not only is physical access a problem, but affordability is as well. According to that same survey, more than two in five women with periods say they have struggled to purchase menstrual products at some point in their life.

Kumar at the time was a representative in the Harvard Undergraduate Council, and began her work with menstrual equity shortly thereafter, passing council legislation to secure funding for a campus-wide program guaranteeing access to menstrual products. In 2018, the University Council and menstrual equity group PERIOD had instated free product distribution across Harvard undergraduate dorms following a successful pilot program. However, Kumar’s project hit a roadblock in 2022 when the Undergrad Council dissolved.

Undeterred, she kept working on the project with a new name, “Making Harvard 100% Period Secure.”

“A lot of the ideas originated in that space. There’ve been students that have been working on it before I was there. And in years prior to the pandemic, there was a quiet wave of menstrual equity on campus,” she said.

“There’s a lot of invisible ways in which our system holds us back and I think this is one of those hidden inequities.”

Intent on making the goals a reality, she found a partner in Harvard’s Office of Physical Resources and Planning.

“The role I served was consolidating all student voices into one student representative and working very intimately with FAS and the Office of Physical Planning, the custodial staff, and the building managers. Just having a one-student approach, that really took the movements of other students and brought it together into one actionable change on campus,” she said.

“She really took it to the next level with student involvement,” said Matthew Stec, FAS senior director of Facilities Operations. “And she helped us manage the whole process. It went from just one bathroom per building to every female and gender-neutral bathroom on campus.”

The biggest challenge, according to both Kumar and Stec, was the sheer number of bathrooms on campus. Eight hundred, to be precise, according to cataloging by Kumar and the team from the Office of Physical Resources and Planning. Of those, about 24 percent had free and accessible menstrual products. One of the first steps toward assessing the state of campus bathrooms was to talk to all the building managers on campus and make a database of every single building — which bathrooms were in that building and, of them, which had free and accessible products, which had broken machines, and which had machines that still required coinage.

“We found that the athletic buildings actually had no menstrual product dispensers and students had to go ask a custodial staff member or a building manager for access to products, which they then pulled from, like, a box somewhere in a closet to hand out to the athletes,” Kumar said. “I was like, that’s crazy.”

A plastic dispenser full of sanitary napkins labeled "100% period secure."
Shruthi Kumar with a newly installed menstrual product dispenser in Lamont Library.

Kumar with a newly installed product dispenser in Lamont Library.

Another challenge was obtaining quality tampons and pads. Kumar said that the team worked to balance finding products that could fit in existing dispensers and also met the needs of students.

“A lot of the products that are left in really old institutions are literally products that were innovated on in the 1940s and 50s. They were cardboard boxes with cardboard tampons and pads with no wings and really thick pads that students don’t feel comfortable wearing,” Kumar said.

According to Stec, the Office of Physical Resources and Planning team was able to find products that fit in both existing metal dispensers and new, cheaper acrylic containers.

“We settled on a clear plastic dispenser that is able to distribute the products that Shruthi and her colleagues viewed as acceptable. And other products that are supposed to be out sometime this year. That was important. And it was just surprisingly more complicated than you would think,” he said.

The last step toward getting the project up and running was communicating with custodial staff who would be in charge of restocking the products.

“It became seamless once we integrated it into the systems that already exist. We don’t really have to think about budgets anymore. We don’t need to think about if it’s there or not anymore because it’s a basic expectation. And I think the training that we’ve given for custodial staff on toilet paper is largely what mirrors what is needed for menstrual products,” Kumar said.

The project, which started in October 2021, took full effect this fall.

Kumar is currently a College senior studying history of science and economics with a secondary in human evolutionary biology.

“So I’m interested in the future working on global health policy, women’s health, health equity, those types of things on a larger scale hopefully,” she said.