Unicode announced that they are releasing 59 new emojis this year, including a drop of blood representing periods. The emoji was fought for by Plan International UK, a global children’s charity who ran a survey in 2017 to find out how much shame and stigma still impact girls’ and women’s experiences of having their period – and were shocked by the results. To help start the conversation that so many girls dread, even with their family and friends, they campaigned for a period emoji, because they consider emoji to be one of the fastest growing global languages.
The period emoji is part of the campaign for greater period representation by Plan International UK. 55,000 people signed their petition for a period emoji, and after the more explicit period pants emoji was rejected, the red drop was created in cooperation with NHS Blood and Transplant. Some have critiqued the emoji for not being a sufficient alternative to actual healthcare or education or dismissed it completely as unnecessary. But Plan International UK is a children’s charity that, amongst other things, strives to advance female equality worldwide and as part of that, support girls through menstruation.
Their research shows how the stigma around periods still affects girls negatively: this may range from being too embarrassed to talk to family or friends to not being able to afford sanitary products. The shame that still surrounds periods prevents girls’ education about their own bodies, for example many do not know what is happening when they get their first period. It stops girls and women from seeking medical health when they are experiencing reproductive health problems, because they do not know how to recognise the symptoms or are simply too embarrassed to talk about it. The lack of education also has severe environmental consequences, disposable sanitary products like tampons and pads are not only expensive, but they also pollute the planet. Nonetheless, many girls and women are not aware of sustainable alternatives like menstrual cups. Moreover, it affects girls’ education, because many miss school or are told to stay at home when they are on their periods.
In many cultures menstruation is associated with evil spirits, bad luck, even death, and being ‘dirty’ or ‘impure’: In Tanzania, people believe that if someone else sees your menstrual cloth, they will be cursed. Even though it manifests itself in different ways, period stigma continues to exist in the UK, too. Plan International UK did a survey and found that 48% of girls in the UK are embarrassed to talk about periods, even though the UK is one of the richest countries in the world. Girls here struggle with period poverty as well and 10% have been unable to afford sanitary products. (Fun fact: Scotland is the first country in the world to offer free sanitary products!)
So, what can be done to disrupt the harmful silence around periods that is still being perpetuated by cultures around the world? Lucy Russell from Plan International UK said: “An emoji isn’t going to solve this, but it can help change the conversation. Ending the shame around periods begins with talking about it.”
She is right. It is just an emoji, but emojis are an integral part of modern communication and the issue of representation has been raised frequently. An emoji cannot replace free sanitary products, healthcare, or education, but we cannot achieve any of those things without talking about periods. So, let’s change that! Start a conversation today with your mum, your sister, or your friends. They key to making a change in how our society treats periods is visibility: The average woman menstruates approximately 3,000 days during her lifetime. That’s an awfully long time to feel ashamed, to be restricted, or to stay silent.
Image: Plan International UK