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What makes up the female reproductive system?

It is indeed amazing that how ignorant women are about their own bodies. This section explains what every woman should know about the anatomy of her reproductive system in two parts. The first part explains the visible organs and the second explains the interior parts of the female reproductive system. It is vital for women and girls to understand the menstrual cycle and know the methods of contraception available today.

The reproductive system – what is visible

The vulva (the external genitalia of a woman) comprises the mons pubis, the clitoris, the labia majora and labia minora, the urethral opening, the vaginal opening and the hymen.

  • Mons pubis: This is a pad of fatty tissue in the pubic area. It is covered with pubic hair.
  • Labia majora: These are folds of skin and fat below the mons pubis. They are closed in women who have not given birth, but open after childbirth. The surface is pigmented and hairy. The inner part contains sebaceous (sweat) glands and is hairless. This part of the external genitalia may atrophy after menopause.
  • Clitoris: This small, sensitive area is the female equivalent of the male penis. It plays an important part in female arousal during sex.
  • Labia minora: These narrow folds enclose the vaginal and urethral (urinary) openings.
  • Hymen: The hymen closes the vaginal opening partially. It has a small outlet for the passage of blood. In some cases, the outlet through which blood can pass at puberty is not there. This leads to the accumulation of blood in the vagina. This condition is a type of amenorrhea (absence of periods) and it requires medical attention. The hymen is usually ruptured during sex. However, gymnastic exercise and horse riding may also rupture the hymen. After childbirth, it more or less disappears. A woman who has never had sex has an unruptured hymen and this state is commonly referred to as virginity.

The reproductive system – what’s inside your body

The internal reproductive organs in a woman are

Vagina: This is the three-inch long passage that leads from the uterus to the exterior. At the uterine end, it widens into the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus. During sexual activity, the mucus secreted by Bartholin’s glands lubricates the vagina. The mucous membrane of the vagina undergoes change at different stages of life and also varies within the menstrual cycle. This is due to the influence of oestrogenic hormones. The vaginal environment is acidic and this property helps to naturally guard against vaginal infection. The opening to the vagina is partially covered by the hymen, which usually remains unruptured until the woman experiences sex.

Cervix: The lower third of the uterus is called the cervix. It projects into the upper end of the vagina and is also called the portiovaginalis. The cervix is about one to one and a half inches long. It provides an alkaline secretion, which helps the penetration of sperm. It also acts as a sphincter for the uterus during pregnancy. Carcinoma of the cervix and chronic cervicitis are diseases of the cervix.

Uterus: The uterus is a hollow, muscular organ in which a fertilised ovum gets implanted and grows into a baby over a period of nine months. Internally, the uterus lies between the bladder and the rectum. The muscle wall at each corner of the uterus has an opening into the respective fallopian tube. The uterus has two parts. The upper two-thirds is called the body or the corpus. The mucous membrane of the body of the uterus is called the endometrium. It provides a site for implantation of the foetus. The lining of the uterus is shed every month as a menstrual period, if conception does not occur.

Some diseases of the uterus and cervix are:

  • Fibroids: Fibroids are benign tumours of the plain muscle of the uterus, commonly found in women over 35 years.
  • Endometriosis: Growth of endometrial tissue in locations outside of the uterus.
  • Endometrial carcinoma:
  • Cervical carcinoma:
  • Prolapse: Prolapse is the herniation of pelvic organs into the vagina or descent of uterus and cervix from the normal position.
  • Chronic cervicitis: This is a fairly common inflammation of the endocervical mucosa.

Fallopian tubes: These two long, delicate tubes are the passages into which the mature ovum is released by the ovary. Each tube is about four inches long. Fertilisation of the ovum by the sperm takes place in the tube. Thus, if there is an obstruction in the tube, it may prevent conception and cause infertility. The fertilised ovum travels down the tube into the uterus where it becomes implanted on the fifth or sixth day after fertilisation. In case the fertilised ovum is not able to pass down the tube, a tubal pregnancy results.

Salpingitis is an inflammation of the fallopian tube as a result of an ascending infection from the endometrium.

Ovaries: The two almond-shaped ovaries are present at the distal ends of the fallopian tubes. Each ovary is about three cm long and one and a half cm wide. The ovaries contain thousands of ova or eggs in various stages of development. These ova are present in the ovaries before puberty. After puberty, they become what are known as graffian follicles, under hormonal stimulation.

Ovulation: Every 28 days, one or two of these follicles develop fully and rupture to release a mature ovum into the fallopian tube. This is known as ovulation, which is part of the woman’s menstrual cycle.

The ovaries also produce the sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone. In pregnancy, there is increased production of hormones – oestrogens, progestins and androgens – by the corpus luteum of the ovaries.

Corpus luteum: The corpus luteum is a part of the ovary that forms out of empty follicle cells.

Benign and malignant growths are fairly common in the ovaries. Ovarian endometrial cysts are known as ‘chocolate’ cysts.

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