While attending boarding school back in 1989 at a respectable church run institution located outside Harare, Ndaizivei (not real name) was forced to stretch her labia minora at the tender age of nine. ‘I told the other girls I was not going to do so, and when the matron caught wind of the news, she would have none of it.’ For her refusal, Ndaizivei had to endure punishment from the matron, sitting in a corner for hours until she “changed her mind.” ‘I questioned why I had to do it, but was simply told that I had to do it, and that one day I would be grateful to her for forcing me to.’ To Ndaizivei, now married and a mother to three, it seems that, the day of gratitude will never come.
While the practice might not have caused any significant bodily harm to her, it sure had a psychological effect, as Ndaizivei still harbors resentment. The system left supposed caregivers to make unnecessary intimate body altering decisions for young girls without even parental consent.
It is difficult to ascertain the prevalence of the practice of labia stretching among Zimbabwean women today, as there is a fair amount of secrecy around it. Alternatively, it could be that very little is known now about the practice hence the secrecy and seemingly declining prevalence. On the other hand, the practice is widely associated with women of Malawian descent. As young girls, they learn about it when they are initiated into womanhood during a traditional ceremony known as chinamwali.
Below are some interesting insights on the practice.
The inner lips are stretched to about the size of the pinky finger
Matinji is the name given to labia minora by the Shona. The practice of labia elongation is known as kudhonza (pulling/ stretching). Labia minora are the thin inner lips or folds of skin that exist on either side of a woman’s vulva. Naturally, each woman’s vagina is unique. From asymmetrical lips, small lips, to dangling inner lips that stick out from the outer lips and even hang outside of the underwear.
As Ndaizivei was told, the labia have to be elongated to the size of the pinky finger and this should be achieved before one starts menstruating. ‘We were told that once you started menstruating it would be difficult to attain the desired length due to shrinkage.’ Labia stretching is not a once off exercise. Even after the desired length is achieved, one has to continually stretch to ensure length is maintained. As a result, Ndaizivei was told that at every opportunity she got, she would have to stretch her labia. ‘Every time I took a bath, I would spare a few moments to pull them.’ Because tissue structure becomes less elastic as one grows older, the labia become less responsive to stretching as one ages.
‘We would do it in private, say in the bathroom or in bed, and sometimes work in pairs, with each one pulling the other’s.’ The labia are massaged and pulled using the thumb and index finger. It is important for the older women or experienced older girls to give the first lesson. ‘Other girls would unknowingly end up pulling the clitoris, which is undesirable,’ Ndaizivei exclaims. Some say when the labia become really long, rather than leave them dangling outside the underwear, you roll them up and push them into the vagina.
Generally young girls are pressured to engage in this practice by the female authority figures around them, such as aunts, grandmothers, mothers and even guardians in formal institutions such as schools. The practice is shrouded in secrecy, such that it becomes difficult for young girls to interrogate or question the information that they receive.
Elongated labia are believed to enhance the sexual experience
Various theories are put forward as to why this practice is necessary. Ndaizivei tells me that at the age of 9 when she started stretching her labia, she had no clue as to why she needed to do so. ‘Some girls said it was necessary to make childbirth easier. However, as I grew older, I heard that nurses discouraged the practice as elongated labia were an unnecessary distraction, and even a risk to the child, during birth.’ It is worth noting that from various studies that have been conducted, there is nothing to suggest that long labia could result in complications.
By the time Ndaizivei was in her teens, she had heard much more about the practice. ‘Others said elongated labia were ‘toys’ for the man to play with during foreplay; whether or not they enhanced sexual pleasure for the woman.’ At the age of 14, Ndaizivei joined a guild for young girls at her church. She remembers how at one gathering, members of the older women’s guild came to give a talk on the practice. ‘We were warned that we risked being rejected by our husbands kana tisina kudhonza (if we did not have elongated labia).’
A woman’s point of view
I recently had a discussion with a female friend on the subject. She told me that elongated labia made sex more pleasurable for her. ‘They provide a greater surface area on which I can feel the pleasurable sensation, since I get my orgasm from outside rather than inside.’ I asked if her husband appreciates them and she laughed saying those who did it for the husband could end up being disappointed.
What men think
A number of male colleagues I spoke to, while aware of the practice, were clueless as to why women do it and seemed not to care whether a partner had stretched her labia. The general body of knowledge on this practice suggests that elongated labia provide support for the penis and guide it during intercourse. They create a narrower, warmer and tighter vagina.
There are no known health issues resulting from elongating the labia. However, the conditions under which this is done could involve certain physical health risks.
It is common for herbs to be used to soften the labia. Girls are also known to use dust, soil and ashes to prevent the fingers from sliding off the labia when stretching.
Herbs and substances commonly used to aid labia elongation
- munhundurwa (solanum incanum)
- mhuwuwu (bidens pilosa)
- mupfuta (ricinis communis)
- roast groundnuts
- burnt bat’s wings
- petroleum jelly
- unspecified substances that are inhaled.
Labia elongation is not synonymous with pain. However, the manner in which the pulling is done and the types of herbs used could be the cause of pain. Some girls even use clothes pegs to pull their labia. Other than physical pain, young girls could also be subjected to emotional trauma when they refuse to engage in the practice. In some cultures, young girls who refused to elongate their labia would be humiliated by being threatened with being left naked on the road with corn poured on their genitalia with hens left to feast on them.
Kudhonza does not fit the technical definition of female genital mutilation
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises ‘all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.’ Kudhonza does not result in a reduction of the female genital organs, instead it enhances. Rather than being detrimental, it is performed to enhance sexual pleasure.
The problem with this practice lies in the circumstances under which the majority of young girls do it. Ndaizivei’s case is one such example. Young girls are forced into performing it, rather than being left to make the decision on their own. The practice is a form of sexual initiation, and has been known to encourage young girls to engage in early sex .
Interestingly, in the western world, women are increasingly undergoing cosmetic genital surgery. Surgery is done to reduce the size of the labia or clitoris. Reasons cited for such surgery include increased self-esteem and improving sexual function.
Other female genital practices performed by Zimbabwean women
Other female genital practices involve the insertion of substances and herbs for vaginal tightening and drying. These could include grasses, leaves, stones, tree bark and powders. Drying is done to eliminate the natural lubrication. Women insert the substances and leave them for several hours before having sex.
According to some studies, substances used could cause inflammatory lesions of the vagina and cervix. Furthermore, extreme dryness could result in breaks in the tissue lining, promoting the passage of organisms that cause sexually transmitted diseases.
There seems to be so much interest and excitement among women when it comes to issues relating to sex and female genital practices. Ironically however, an overwhelming number of young girls are vulnerable to poor health outcomes due to ignorance around their sexual and reproductive health. One wonders why women do not employ the same attitude to empower themselves and make informed decisions about the thing that matters the most – their health.
- A special thank you to Ndaizivei for sharing her story with me.
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