Hesperian Health Guides

A woman’s reproductive system

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HealthWiki > A Health Handbook for Women with Disabilities > Chapter 4: Understanding your body > A woman’s reproductive system


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A woman’s reproductive organs

In many ways, a woman’s body is no different from a man’s, whether or not one of them has a disability. Women and men both have hearts, kidneys, lungs, and other body parts that are the same. But their sexual or reproductive parts are very different. Many women’s health problems affect these parts of her body.

The sexual and reproductive parts of women with disabilities and women who do not have disabilities usually look and work in similar ways. The sexual parts outside the body are called the genitals. Inside, they are called the reproductive organs.

a woman speaking.
Sometimes talking about the sexual parts of our bodies can be difficult, especially if you are shy or do not know what different parts of the body are called. In many place, the reproductive parts of the body are considered 'private.'
Understanding how your sexual and reproductive parts work will help you know how to get pregnant and also how to prevent pregnancy.


Sexual parts on the outside

The sexual parts outside the body and between a woman’s legs are together called the vulva. The drawing shows what the vulva looks like and what each part is called. But every woman’s body is different. There are differences in the size, shape, and color of the parts, especially of the outer and inner folds of skin.

Sometimes people may use the word vagina for the whole area. But the vagina is the part that begins as an opening in the vulva and leads inside to the womb. The vagina is sometimes called the ‘birth canal.’

The outer and inner folds of skin protect the vagina. These folds are sometimes called ‘lips.’ The inner folds of skin are soft, without hair, and are sensitive to touch. During sex, the inner folds swell and turn darker.

The hymen is a thin piece of skin just inside the opening to the vagina. A hymen may stretch or tear and bleed a little because of hard work, sports, or other activities. This can also happen when a woman has sex for the first time. All hymens are different. Some women do not have a hymen at all, and not all women bleed during their first sexual intercourse.

The clitoris is small and shaped like a flower bud. It is the part of the vulva that is most sensitive to touch. Rubbing it, and the area around it, can make a woman sexually excited
and cause climax (orgasm).

The urinary opening is a small hole between the vaginal opening and the clitoris. It leads into the urethra, which is a short tube that carries urine from the bladder to the outside of the body.

The anus is the opening of the intestine, where waste (stool) leaves the body.

Sexual parts inside a woman’s body

illustration of a woman's sexual parts.
hip bones
womb
(uterus)
ovary
fallopian
tube
vagina or
birth canal
cervix

The reproductive parts inside a woman’s body are in the pelvic area—the area between the hips. You can feel your hip bones just below your waist. If your hip bones are not shaped evenly, your reproductive parts will not be affected.

A woman has 2 ovaries, one on each side of her womb. Each ovary is about the size of an almond or grape. One of the ovaries releases an egg into one of the fallopian tubes each month. The egg moves through the fallopian tube to the womb (uterus), a small, hollow muscle that stretches and grows larger when a woman is pregnant.

A man’s sexual parts

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A man’s sexual parts are easier to see than a woman’s because they are mostly on the outside of his body. The testicles (balls) make the main male hormone called testosterone. When a boy's body begins to change, it makes more testosterone. This causes the changes that make a boy look like a man. These are like the changes that happen when a girl’s body makes more female hormones.

The testicles also make a man’s sperm. Sperm travel from the testicles through a tube into the penis where they mix with a liquid produced by glands. This mixture of liquid and sperm is called semen.

What happens during sex?

a man's sexual parts.
penis
vas deferens (sperm tube)
testicle

During sex, the man’s semen comes out of his penis when he ejaculates (comes). Each drop of semen has thousands of sperm, which are too small to see. When the man ejaculates in the woman’s vagina or near her genitals, the sperm can enter the through the ‘mouth’ of the womb (the cervix) into the womb.

The vagina is made of a special kind of skin that stretches easily during sex (and also when giving birth). The vagina makes a fluid or wetness (discharge) that helps it keep clean and prevent infection. The vagina makes more fluid than usual during sex to make it easier for the penis to enter, to help prevent tears in the vagina, and to help sperm reach the womb.

a man and a disabled woman in bed.
9 months later...
a disabled woman breastfeeding a baby.

Becoming pregnant

About 14 days after the beginning of each monthly bleeding, when the lining in the womb is ready, an egg is released from one of the ovaries. This is called ovulation. The egg then travels down a tube into the womb. At this time a woman is fertile and can become pregnant. If she has recently had sex with a man, his sperm may enter the womb through the cervix and join with her egg. This is called fertilization and is the beginning of pregnancy. If the egg does not join with a man's sperm, there is no pregnancy, and the lining of the womb is shed during the monthly bleeding.

What every woman should know about having sex

  • You can get pregnant the first time you have sex with a man.
  • You can get pregnant any time you have sex without using a family planning method (even if you have sex only once).
  • You can get pregnant even if the man thinks he did not let his sperm (seed) come out.
  • You can get a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or HIV if you do not use a condom when you have sex with an infected person. (You cannot tell by looking at a person if he is infected or not).
  • It is easier for a girl or a woman to get an STI or HIV from man during sex than it is for her to give these diseases to him. This is because the man’s semen stays in her vagina for a long time.
  • It is harder to know if a girl or woman has an STI because the signs of infection are often inside her body.


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condom for women
(female condom)
condom for men

Always use either a male condom or a female condom for protection against STIs and HIV/ AIDS. Even though sperm, and the germs that cause infection, are very small, they cannot get through the plastic or latex of a condom if it is put on properly.

For more information about protecting yourself from infection, see Chapter 8. To prevent unwanted pregnancy, see Chapter 9.


This page was updated:19 Sep 2018