Can a period emoji further the conversation about menstruation?

The girls-focused charity Plan International has created a social media campaign to destigmatise menstruation by allowing people to vote on one of five different period-related emojis. The emoji with the most votes will be submitted to Unicode Consortium, which standardises and unifies characters and texts across softwares.

Emoji designs included a pad, a calendar, period drops, a pair of underwear with a blood stain and a uterus.

Since its inception last week, the campaign has garnered much praise. For people who menstruate, there’s still a lot of shame regarding an issue that millions of people experience every month.

Broaching the subject can be particularly uncomfortable for many. By having a period emoji within the lexicon of characters, it’s a step toward normalising a regular reality.

Zaakira Mahomed, founding member of Minacup.org, which distributes menstrual cups to schools, believes this is a promising idea.

“It’s a subtle way to get the conversation started for a topic that most are uncomfortable talking about. It is also appeals to the youth and will get the youth involved in terms of social media,” Mahomed said.

If we have emojis for different sporting activities, food and office supplies, surely we have room for an emoji that actually captures a human experience?

As creative as the idea is, understanding and communicating about menstruation isn’t that easy. That’s because understanding menstruation itself is a luxury afforded to those who receive sexual and reproductive education. There is the assumption that emoji users have knowledge of how menstruation works or have had some type of reproductive education.

The reality is that there are schools where teenagers don’t learn about menstruation, much less how their bodies work in general. If people don’t have this background, how can they be expected to understand what the uterus emoji means? If they don’t have access to pads or other menstrual products, will they understand what the pad emoji means?

Even the idea of a period emoji is a luxury afforded to those who have internet access or a smartphone. About 52% South African adults use “ordinary phones” compared with 37% who use smartphones;  10% of adults do not use a phone at all . Although the majority of the population owns a phone, that doesn’t imply that users have access to apps or features that use emojis.

Plus, 53% of households have at least one member who has internet access either from their household, an internet cafe or work according to a Statistics SA report. Although a slight majority have access to the internet, there’s still a large portion of the population that don’t.

Dr Sumayya Ebrahim, lecturer and consultant in the department of psychology at University of Johannesburg, argues that emojis are a good way to facilitate discussion on the topic of menstruation. But she raises critical questions about who the users of the period emojis may be.

“Who are going to use these emojis? My suspicion is that the users may likely hail from a demographic who are urbanised, who are relatively educated, and who are technologically savvy,” Ebrahim said.

“I’m thinking that the one who has the fancy app on their phones has the fancy language to speak about periods.”

The point of having a period emoji is to provide more room for people who menstruate with the ability to talk about it. But if this platform is only enjoyed by a subset of people, is a period emoji enough to get more people talking?

It’s a step in the right direction, but there needs to be a bit of realism in the mix, too. If we want to target the kind of demographics that are the most affected by the taboos of menstrual talk, perhaps we need to engineer a way that actually allows them to do that.

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