Understanding the functions of the female reproductive system is helpful, particularly when you feel that things aren’t quite right.
Anatomy of the female reproductive system
The external and internal organs of the female reproductive system all serve different purposes, so let’s look at each one within those groups.
Your external genitalia and adjacent body parts to protect you from infections. Here are each of their roles within the female reproductive system:
- Mons pubis: This fatty tissue covers your pubic bone. The pubic bone is at the top of your pubic area, between your legs. After puberty, it is covered with thick hair called pubic hair, which traps particles so that they do not enter your vagina.
- Labia majora: These ‘large lips’ enclose and protect the other external reproductive organs, in conjunction with the post-puberty hair that grows on them. They contain sweat and oil-secreting glands, and are comparable to the scrotum in males.
- Labia minora: These ‘small lips’ are about two inches wide and sit just inside the labia majora. They surround the openings to the vagina (the canal that connects the lower part of the uterus to the outside world) and the urethra (which carries urine from the bladder to the outer body). The skin is delicate and more prone to becoming irritated and swollen than the labia majora.
- Bartholin's glands: These glands are located under the skin beside the vaginal opening and produce mucus to keep the vaginal opening moist.
- The clitoris is a small, firm organ at the top of the vulva, comparable to a male’s penis. Stimulation of the clitoris is associated with sexual pleasure. It sits where the two labia minora meet and is covered by a fold of skin, called the prepuce, which is similar to a foreskin.
- The perineum is the area between the vagina and the anus.
The internal reproductive organs of the female reproductive system are where conception happens and where a baby resides until it is delivered. Each month, the uterine lining builds up here and is shed if pregnancy does not occur.
- Hymen: This thin piece of mucosal tissue partially covers the external opening of the vagina. During puberty, additional oestrogen makes it more elastic. In some women, it is thin and stretchy, but it may also be thick and rigid, or completely absent. It may tear during first penetrative intercourse, which often results in pain and, sometimes, temporary bleeding or spotting.
- Vagina: The vagina is the passageway that leads to the cervix (the lower part of the uterus). The vaginal opening is where menstrual blood and vaginal discharge leave the body, and where a tampon is inserted during menstruation; it's also the ‘birth canal’ a baby passes through during delivery.
- Uterus (womb): The uterus is a hollow, pear-shaped organ where a foetus develops. It is divided into the cervix (the lower part that opens into the vagina) and the corpus (main body). The corpus can easily expand to hold a developing baby. A channel through the cervix allows sperm to enter and menstrual blood to leave.
- Ovaries: The ovaries are small, oval glands that sit on either side of the uterus. They produce eggs and hormones that affect the entire reproductive system.
- Fallopian tubes: These narrow channels at the upper part of the uterus allow the egg cells to travel from the ovaries to the uterus. Conception, the fertilisation of an egg by a sperm, normally occurs within these tubes. The fertilised egg then moves to the uterus, where it implants into the lining of the uterine wall.
How many eggs do girls have?
You are born with all the eggs you’ll ever have! Over your lifetime, you will release about 500 mature eggs. The number of eggs that you have depends on your age. The number is actually highest before you are born!
Here’s how it happens. When you were a 20-week-old female foetus (still in your mother’s womb), you had approximately 7 million eggs. At birth, the number decreased to about 2 million. By the time you enter puberty, you have between 300,000 and 500,000 eggs. Only between 400 and 500 will ripen into mature eggs during your life.