(Warning: This story includes content of a sexual nature and descriptions that some may find disturbing.)
Cynthia, who for privacy does not wish to use her real name, was 12 years old when a senior female teacher announced that girls at her school — more than 100 — would undergo genital stretching.
Under pressure from the girls’ parents, the school arranged for older women to instruct the girls on how to stretch their labia and to use traditional herbs to make it permanent.
“It was painful,” Cynthia said. “It wasn’t really something pleasant for me as a person. Because at that time, you’re something like 12 years, 11 years — you’re not sexually active. So why are you doing this thing? Honestly, why are you doing this so-called ‘pulling,’ whatever people call it? I didn’t know why, but because we were many, some days they would say, ‘Get a partner. Get a partner, you do it to each other.’ ”
Labia stretching is a pre-marriage tradition in southeastern Africa among Bantu-speaking tribes, who believe it gives greater sexual pleasure to both men and women.
But Peace Mutuuzo, Uganda’s minister for culture and gender, sparked controversy this month by calling labia stretching a type of female genital mutilation.
She said that while FGM that involves cutting, or circumcision, does much greater physical damage, labia stretching should not be forced on girls.
“Children between 8 to 12 are being sensitized, initiated, and the practice takes effect from that time,” she said. “These are basically babies, who we’ve taken to schools for empowerment — for purposes of full growth, to actualize their potential.”
For the last 20 years, Hamida Namatovu has been showing girls and women how to stretch their labia. She defends the cultural practice, claiming that unlike FGM, labia stretching has no negative effects, only positive ones.
“Once you do it, and you have a marriage partner, that’s the only thing that will show him that you are ready,” she said.
Not true, doctors say
But doctors dismiss the claims. Dr. Vincent Karuhanga said that just like FGM, labia stretching is more about pleasing men than women.
“Much as it’s claimed that pulling can ease birth pain or even make a woman warmer, there’s no scientific evidence in this,” he said. “But what is true is that pulling can actually make the men involved sexually with the women happier with their sexual act.”
Nonetheless, labia stretching practitioners are demanding that Mutuuzo apologize for undermining their tradition.
But she dismisses their call, saying she will continue to speak for the voiceless and discourage the practice until girls reach the age of consent.