It's unfortunate that the term FGM, female genital mutilation ,is one that is widely recognised and understood in this day and age. The practice - most frequently carried out in some African countries, but also known to occur in the likes of the UK and America - traditionally involves a young women's clitoris being violently and unhygienically cut off in a procedure that's not only physically painful and emotionally scarring, but is also life-endangering. Labia stretching is the process of a woman having her labia minora - the inner lips of her vagina - pulled by bare hands until they stretch, growing up to 5 inches in length. It often happens to children who haven't yet reached puberty, and is illegal when it involves youngsters, although some adult women reportedly have it done voluntarily because they are told it will make them 'more attractive to men'. The idea is that it improves sex for men by giving them "something to touch" and that it will make them "more faithful", according to sexual practices researcher at Wolverhampton University, Eney Mhiza. It's also believed in some cultures who practice this kind of mutilation that the elongation of the labia will help to deliver a healthy child in labour. Betty, who features in the BBC's short film on labia stretching, had this very kind of FGM done to her back in Zimbabwe when she was just a child. She now campaigns against it. Little girls in some countries are also often encouraged to pull their own labia, and Betty explains that those of them who were unsuccessful using just their hands would often resort to using string or other such equipment. This, as Betty points out, can cause painful ailments including torn skin and ulcerations.
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You say 'vagina', I say 'vulva'
Labia minora elongation is one of the vaginal practices that some Zimbabwean women engage in during the pre-menarche age. This practice has not been thoroughly investigated in Zimbabwe. The objective of this study is to learn about the knowledge, attitudes and perceptions of urban Zimbabwean men towards labia minora elongation. A qualitative study was conducted in Chitungwiza, Harare, in
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Zambian girls report that family matriarchs and counselors pressure them to stretch their labia minora, but they dare not question the cultural practice. It is a social taboo to discuss the topic, and even medical practitioners are reluctant to speak about it openly. Now 22, Mwelwa says she did not dare to question her elders, but she did not understand why she had to stretch her genitals by hand.
These days, we look at our vaginas — or more correctly, vulvas — much more than women or men used to. And as we get older or after childbirth, many of us are shocked to find the area has changed. First things first. Just as everyone has a different body shape, eye colour, or preference for sexual partner, there is also enormous variation in vaginas and vulvas, regardless of age. The vagina and vulva lose thickness and the colour of the vulva can change from pink to a paler or darker hue. The clitoris can shrink, the labia can loosen, and there may be shrinkage of some tissue, Dr Tan said. The urethral entrance may also start to "pout a little bit and look a little bit fleshy". That plumpness becomes a bit saggy," she said. The vagina and vulva will stay pretty much the same through the years from puberty to menopause, with the exception of two significant events: childbirth and breastfeeding. Tears or episiotomies may affect the appearance and function of the vagina and vulva in the long term, "depending on how well the tissue is put back together".