By Confidence Matiyenga
I remember at the age of 13, a few weeks later I had my first period. One of my mother’s friend called me in my room were my 23-year-old cousin was sleeping. She called me because she wanted to speak about something important. She waited for my cousin to close the door making sure there were no unwanted interruptions. She began with a low voice, “You now a grown woman and your mom asked me to talk to you about something important.” She wanted to graphically explain the process of labia elongation which I did not know about. Later on, that night as I waited for sleep to engulf me I replayed the words in my mind – I had never taken time to ask why this was required of me and for whose purpose it was. I was simply told what it was and how it was to be done.
It is interesting in the Western world, many women consider large labia to be unappealing. They even seek out surgical intervention and pay for labiaplasties to undergo expensive surgeries to ‘beautify’ their vaginas by labia reduction. However, many women in sub-Saharan Africa practice a wide array of traditional body modifications and vaginal practices known as Labia stretching also referred to as labia elongation or labia pulling. Labia elongation is the act of elongating the labia minora through manual manipulation (pulling). Some often elongate their labia with the aid of certain oils, creams and utensils. Stretching is complete when the desired length, which usually ranges from 2 to 5 inches, is reached (Martínez Pérez, Tomás Aznar and Bagnol, 2013). It is usually taught by paternal aunts, grandmothers or female peers to young girls before menarche. The most commonly cited motivations reported by those who practice it are that it is a requisite for marriage, a socializing rite of passage that determines entrance into womanhood and a physical feature that enhances sexual pleasure
More recently, in a joint report from UNICEF, UNFPA and IOM on gender-based violence in Zimbabwe, the authors document that labia elongation is a common traditional practice in Mberengwa and Mudzi districts . The World Health Organisation (WHO) has retracted its earlier stand where it classified labia elongation as class IV female genital mutilation. This had outraged many Africans as the practice is supposed to provide immense sexual pleasure and WHO’s stance was considered a misunderstanding of the cultures and ways of African people.
Lisa,23, says: “We started pulling while we were in primary school. Most of my friends have done it. It can be painful but you eventually get used to it.
Gracious added, “We know all the bush herbs that are used for this purpose (labia elongation). It is trendy for a girl to have pulled and many girls say men sometimes rebuke girls who never did labia elongation.”
An elderly, gogo Mamoyo says: “Labia elongation is a common practice which I even found existing. The major purpose of pulling the labia is to assist the couple especially the woman to ejaculate when a man strokes the elongated labia gently without any form of sexual penetration. The practice begins at puberty stage usually from 12 years, because at this age the young girl’s tissues are softer and flexible for pulling hence making it easy to elongate the labia.”
However, Memory had other views on labia elongation: “I was told about it, and I did practice it but I felt some discomfort so I stopped the process and sometimes l was forgetting to do it on a daily basis. So why would I punish myself for something I cannot be killed for.”
Labia elongation is something that every girl who has grown up in Zimbabwe has at least heard about. Others have gone through the process and for some, it’s a mystery they can only imagine. People cherish it with their entire being, while others could not care at all about a matter so trivial but it is what it is. One should not be judged for not having the labia extended as they are no health proven advantages or disadvantages.