By Maduduzo Rebecca Sibanda
I remember how when I was just thirteen years old, my grandmother made me lie on my back and fondled with my private parts. She had wooden pegs in each hand that she dipped in cooking oil. I recall how confused I was, when I asked her what she was doing, she told me she was lengthening my labia minora. For starters I did not know what labia minora were, although I was scared and mystified, I could not resist being inquisitive. My grandmother insensitively said that she had to do it to me because girls with normal labia minora never got married. I remember the excruciating pain, my grandmother explained that she had to use the pegs and the cooking oil for lubrication as at thirteen my labia minora had hardened. She told me my mother should have elongated my labia minora before I turned five.
The lengthening of the labia minora is a very common practice in the African culture. It is practiced by some tribes in South Africa, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Rwanda just to name a few countries. As explained to me by my grandmother, the reason for undergoing labia stretching is for sexual enhancement aimed at conceding satisfaction to the male partner.
Many young girls in my culture continue to have their labia minora lengthened either by older family members or by themselves at the instruction of elders. The “unlucky” few who undergo labia minora elongation after they have reached puberty, like myself, go through a gruesome experience as objects have to be used to do the stretching. The process of stretching must be done on a regular basis for an extended period of time in order to achieve lasting results. This forced elongation of labia minora is seldom documented as a form of female genital mutilation, possibly because there is not cutting or piecing of the genitals.
Although I was only thirteen years old when my labia minora were lengthened, I questioned the whole practice. I did not appreciate why my vagina had to be modified for the gratification of another person, for a man I had not even met, a man I was not certain I ever wanted to meet. In as much as the stretching of labia minora has been a cultural norm in my native country for hundreds of years, I am utterly against the practice. I as a victim of labia minora stretching can not single out a benefit for having abnormally long labia minora. I experience discomfort and pain particularly when I wear sanitary towels or tight fitting pants. I feel denied of my right to bodily integrity and the liberty to consenting to what gets done to my body. Having studied at a boarding school, throughout my high school years I avoided being seen in the nude by my fellow colleagues for the fear of being ridiculed.
While some people may argue and say that we should by all means embrace our culture and be proud of the way of life of our ancestors, the practice of lengthening the labia minora sets a precedent to young girls for the manifestation of gender inequality and discrimination. The very fact that I went through agonizing pain for the pleasure of another, psychologically instilled a sense of oppression and subjugation. I do believe cultural practices have meaning and fulfill a purpose for those who practice them, however, culture is not static, it is in constant fluctuation, adapting and reforming.
For example, in my ethnic group, the bride price of women whose labia minora is not stretched is paid using Angus cattle (a breed of cattle that does not have horns). This is done to symbolise the groom’s disenchantment of marrying a woman whose labia minora is not elongated. This practice inflicts shame and humiliation on the bride and her family and opens up the woman for abuse and mockery by her in-laws and an entire village.
As a form of progression, society should change their behavior towards certain cultural practices that put men in a superior position to the woman. The forced elongation of the labia minora of minors is one such practice that robs young girls of their dignity and their freedom of choice and as such should be abolished.
In conclusion it is important to highlight that it is possible to give up destructive practices without giving up meaningful aspects of our culture.