Labia elongation: Invaluable culture or dangerous practice?

Labia elongation is something that every girl who has grown up on Ugandan terrain has at least heard about. Others have experienced it, complete with its joys and pains, while for many it is a mystery they can only imagine. Some men have heard of it too, and others have gone beyond the doors of these protected waters. Some people cherish it with their entire being, while others could not care at all about a matter so trivial. Another section of the community downrightly abhors elongated labia.

Labia elongation is FGM - WHO

Labia elongation was previously classified as Class IV Female Genital Mutilation by the World Health Organisation. This outraged many Africans who considered this as yet another misunderstanding of the cultures and ways of the African people by biased Western scholars. In Uganda, Dr. Sylvia Tamale, a human rights activist and associate professor at the faculty of Law has been outspoken in support of this tradition. She has argued that categorising labia elongation as FGM is not in touch with the reality of the women with elongated labia who, thanks to the procedure, are able to experience immense sexual pleasure.

The mutilating connotations of classifying labia elongation as a form of FGM were found not to be justified by a study carried out by Marian Koster MSc and Dr. Lisa Price of Wageningen University, Netherlands. This is mostly premised on the fact that labia elongation, unlike Female Genital Cutting, is a rite of passage the girls in the community in which it is practiced look forward to. It leaves no permanent physical maiming and has no dire health consequences. In 2008, the WHO scheduled the amending of the treatment of it from female Genital Mutilation to the less fatal sounding female Genital Modification.

How it is done?

Dr. Vincent Karuhanga of Friends Poly Clinic says: “There are the labia majora and the labia minora. What are pulled are the labia minora,” he says. Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, describes labia minora as the two longitudinal coetaneous folds on the human vulva. They are located between the labia majora and extend from the clitoris. The labia majora are the prominent fleshy longitudinal folds commonly known as outer lips sheltering the vagina.
According to Karuhanga, there is not much medical value attached to elongated labia except a higher self esteem one will get from a more fulfilling sex life. He explains that the most sensitive part of a woman is the clitoris, labia minora and the first ten centimetres inside her vagina. Thus long labia minora make for better foreplay as a man fondles or uses his penis to stimulate them while simultaneously hitting the peak of the clitoris.

The earliest records of labia elongation are among the Khosikans of South Africa where the labia minora (inner lips) were seen to be several centimetres longer than the labia majora (outer lips). The practice is also common in Zimbabwe and Rwanda.
In Uganda the people of Central, Western and South Western as well as parts of the Eastern region carry out at least some sort of labia modification. The length to which the labia is pulled is what varies, with some tribes such as the Banyankore and Batooro preferring several dangling inches while most girls from Buganda and Eastern region spoken to favoured them protruding no more than an inch out of the outer lips.

Thirty-year-old Kendra Namatovu who says her labia is about an inch and a half long was told to pull by her mother who went ahead and took her to a family friend to perform the procedure. She was never told about the benefits or possible dangers. It was something she had to do, and she was threatened with punishment if she did not. The traditional punishment for Baganda girls who did not pull was said to be, being taken to a trading centre and forced to lie down spread eagled. Some sorghum would then be poured on the offending girl’s vagina and labia.
Attracted to this sorghum, an eagle would come and peck and in the process elongate the labia. This threat was a great compelling force for Kendra who decided to let the woman appointed by her mother do what she had to do.

“I was nine years old. She used some herbs called Butengotengo. They were green, fresh and itchy. My labia swelled and I had to walk with legs apart,” she recalls.
Butengotengo are eggplant-like fruits. They are sold on the streets of Kampala and by commercial ssengas, and are said to be the most effective pulling remedy.
Jackie Ngero, 27, has a Samia father and Muganda mother. Her mother introduced her to pulling at the age of twelve. She was told that it would make giving birth easier and no one would ever marry her if she did not go through this sacred ritual. She happily did it at thirteen, using some herbs she did not really know and cow ghee. She is very proud of her labia.

“My current boyfriend loves them. I have met men who get excited just looking at them,” she boasts.
Twenty-four-year old Jane Chandia, is from the West Nile. She first heard about labia elongation when she joined a primary school in Kampala. Their matrons forced them to pull. Every night they would pull in groups and their progress closely monitored. Those who did not show improvement were punished. The pressure was intense and she was not even sure what to pull. What she has to show for those actions is a swollen clitoris that has managed to shock boyfriend after boyfriend.

Ssenga Flora Nassanga, based in Mukono, has counselled many women on the issue of labia elongation, and compares not having elongated labia to having a house a without a door or curtains. She opines that no one would like to visit such a house since it does not look beautiful and inviting.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd