Is It Beneficial or Simply a Myth?
All around the world, female genitalia remain a source of great curiosity and sexual gratification. They are seen as possessing the powers to arouse sexual impulses and curiosity in girls and women in several cultures. This keen interest and desire have spawned the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), where these parts get excised in various ways — in addition to other modifications of the external genitalia — for protecting the woman’s virtue.
Female genital mutilation, writes the World Health Organization (WHO), “comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” This is a joint statement from WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA, which categorized FGM into four types, with female genital elongation (FGE) coming under Type IV.
In this article, I would be exploring the facts surrounding FGE, along with reasons many African communities has for long been engaging in it, its health and psychological implications, and myths about its supposed benefits. The narrative put forward here forms a part of TAWF’s Sexual and Reproductive Health campaign to protect and empower African girls and women.
What Is Female Genital Elongation?
A lot of women in Africa engage in different traditional body modifications as well as vaginal practices. Their reasons for performing these vaginal procedures are diverse, ranging from beautifying the genitals, to enhancing hygiene and personal grooming, preparing for sexual intercourse, medicinal practices, and promoting sexual health.
Female genital elongation is one of such practices, which is also called labia minora elongation (LME) or labia pulling or labia stretching. According to researchers, FGE is commonly performed by women of some linguistic groups in eastern and southern regions of Africa.
It involves stretching of the inner folds of the external genitalia manually, the labia minora, and in some cases, the clitoris. This procedure is typically carried out using certain oils, crèmes as well as utensils. Elongation of the labia is done through manipulation/pulling or with the use of physical equipment (like weights).
Understanding Labia Minora
They are two small folds of thin & delicate skin, which lack fatty tissue, extending backward on each side of the opening into your vagina. Labia minora lie within the bigger labia majora.
They are around 4cm – 6.4cm (roughly 1.5in – 2.5in) in length and approximately 2cm in width on average. Labia minora are far from being a featureless and uniform part of the female anatomy since their length and width vary from one woman to the other.
FGE Prevalence in Africa
On achieving the desired length (this is often in the region, 2in – 5in), labia stretching is complete. Female genital elongation is a common cultural practice in a number of countries in Africa, including Burundi, Rwanda, Zambia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Malawi.
Young girls traditionally start elongating their labia (from ages 8 – 14) before their first menstrual cycle or before they notice their first menstrual bleeding. This period is termed menarche technically. They get advice or instructions on carrying FGE from their paternal aunts, grandmothers, or female peers.
Why Female Genital Elongations Are Done
Those that engage in this practice mainly regard it as a requisite for marriage, as a socializing rite of passage (initiation), which determines entrance into womanhood, and as a physical feature which improves sexual pleasure.
Here are different reasons the procedure is carried out:
- Pressure from community elders and peer pressure from friends
- Fear of not being marriageable and desirable to males in the community if FGE isn’t done
- In some cultures, labia minora elongations are seen as a beautifying routine
- The sexual gratification of men so long it enhances sexual pleasures for men & some women
- FGE could help with problems associated with child birth
Researchers gave conducted different studies to determine the motivations for engaging in FGE in African communities.
In one of such research, which focused on what Zimbabwean men know about the practice, it was discovered that women engage in female genital elongation to satisfy their men: “Women do it for the men because it helps men’s orgasm.
“The belief is that there is more sexual pleasure.
“For the (pleasure of) women I am not sure,” said Mike, one of respondents in the study.
In Zimbabwe, Matinji is a common term the majority of respondents in the research used to call the elongated labia. While Matinji isn’t a derogatory word, the elongated labia, or Matinji, are an appreciated physical attribute. A number of men used derogatory terms like “teddy bear” or “toys” to describe the Matinji, which means it is for the men to play with during sexual foreplay.
A lot of debate has been had concerning whether FGE is harmful or beneficial, and some people have argued it is a “modification” and not a “mutilation”, adding that the practice need not be regarded as a form of female genital mutilation.
It has, however, been classified by the WHO, as stated earlier, as a cultural practice that constitutes some harm to the people engaging in it and violates human rights, since young girls face social pressure to have it done, in addition to the permanent changes it brings about on the female genitalia.
The FGE issue still suffers from a paucity of research, unlike the other types of female genital mutilation, and there have been calls for conduction of more research on labia elongation benefits and risks.
What Are the Psychological Impact and Health Implications of Female Genital Elongation?
Available studies suggest labia stretching doesn’t cause significant long-term damage to the sexual and reproductive health of women; there are, however, a number of minor discomforts:
- Severe pain/wounds that arise from the use of sticks and weights, harnesses to achieve stretching of the labia
- Infections from herbs use
- Minor health risks like lacerations, itching, edema, ulcers, irritation, swelling, and discomfort when wearing pants
- Psychosocial risks in which African girls that fail to practise pulling are ostracized, stigmatized, mocked, or criticized
- Bullying & abuse
- Sexualization of children
TAWF’s Campaign against Female Genital Elongation in Africa
The African Woman Foundation (TAWF) has recently keenly followed the debate from some sections of society on various issues affecting women in Africa, especially the African girl.
One of the issues has been the debate on initiation ceremonies. TAWF is currently researching the impact of initiation ceremonies on early pregnancies and child marriages. Of equal importance, TAWF has been researching to find out what goes on in the initiation ceremonies for girls by speaking with recent and past initiates on what role the initiation ceremonies have played in their lives.
We have been engaging the older women in a series of discussions from different regions in Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, among others to determine what they teach the young initiates, which contributes in early marriages and pregnancies.
However, in the course of this research, another debate cropped up — which is the issue of female genital elongation. This has been generated by statements attributed to one of the Chiefs from the Eastern part of Zambia who has banned initiation ceremonies in his chiefdom and the female genital elongation practiced by most tribes in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), including Zambia.
TAWF has lately engaged both genders in different regional countries, with Zambia inclusive, to find out what they thought about female genital elongation. We interviewed 263 females and the same number for males all above the age of 25.
In our interactive research, which involved sampling all 263 women spoken with, we discovered that they all supported the act of female genital elongation. The argument advanced was that it enhanced their sexual pleasure and that of their partners. All the women we spoke with held a belief that if they never went through the procedure, they would have never been married.
This belief was strongly anchored on the traditional and customs, which were passed on from generations in their tribes. They believed that a female without elongated genitals is a disgrace to the family, with less chances of keeping a marriage. They associated FGE to the success of marriage and sexual pleasure and fulfillment
Equally, the greatest surprise came from men. All men interviewed about female genital elongation were very much aware of what it meant and also what value they thought it played in male and female relationships by associating female genital elongation with sexual pleasure and fulfillment.
Of all men randomly sampled, none were against the act. In fact, all the men shockingly said they would never marry a woman without elongated genitals. All those men said if a woman lacked elongated genitals, it meant she was uncultured and unfit for marriage.
Some women spoken with had very strong views, indicating to TAWF that if female genital elongation were banned, then marriages would be ruined.
There’s currently no scientific evidence in support of the notion that female genital elongation is beneficial to sexual pleasure. The only place where it is touted and practised is within the corridors of culture and tradition.
TAWF’s Recommendations to Combat the Issue
The African Woman Foundation recommends the following measures to tackle the problem of female genital elongation:
- Working with young people to educate them about what effects peer pressure cause when they participate or engage in FGM practice
- Creating better knowledge of and awareness about elongation among professionals
- Identifying the psychological impact of female genital mutilation and its impact on the African girl child and young woman.
- Putting in place services to support FGM victims
- As very little information is available for professionals to help identify FGE, which is a part of Type IV FGM, there is more sensitization needed to increase knowledge on the issue and improve female sexual and reproductive health.
- More documented research needs to be carried out on the health & psychological risks caused by labia elongation practices
Founder, The African Woman Foundation (TAWF)