The anatomy or structure of the female reproductive system is quite complex with its various female parts or organs having their functions to perform and responses to make to the various hormonal changes.
Its physiology is unique in the sense, each organ or part of the system works in coordination, performs its own part of the reproductive function, and responds to the hormonal changes that rule this system.
The functions and responses of these internal and external sex organs vary and change according to whether pregnancy occurs or not during the menstrual cycle every month. Here, we discuss the female reproductive system in humans.
The female reproductive system or the female genital system in humans is situated in the pelvis in the lower part of the abdomen. The system has been so designed as to fulfill the important function of reproduction and keeping the human species alive and existent.
It is an open but collapsed tract, which starts externally from the female genital organ (called the vulva, which means covering), and proceeds internally through the vagina to the cervical opening of the uterus.
From the uterus, it bifurcates to the left and the right via the two fallopian tubes towards the ovaries, one on each side.
It produces the ovum or the egg in the ovary, which releases it once it is mature – once every menstrual cycle. The ovum then waits impatiently for the sperm from the male for 12 to 24 hours only. The process of the release of the egg from the ovary is called ovulation.
Once the sperm fertilizes the egg, it travels down the fallopian tube to the uterus and implants itself on the inner wall of the uterus. Fertilization of the egg is called conception and it usually occurs in the fallopian tube.
The uterus nourishes the fertilized egg for the full length of the pregnancy of 38 to 40 weeks.
The implanted fertilized egg is referred to as the embryo for the first 8 weeks and then it is called the fetus or the unborn baby.
We now examine each female reproductive organ and part individually. The female anatomy consists of female parts, which are external and internal. The external female parts form the vulva and are visible and the internal female parts are situated inside the body.
External Female Reproductive Organs
The external parts of the female reproductive anatomy form the female genitalia and perform three main functions.
- They facilitate the entry of the male sperm inside the body to the internal parts of the female anatomy.
- They also protect the internal vital parts of the female reproductive system from infection.
- They make having sex a pleasure.
Mons pubis, also called the mons veneris, is an elevation or a rounded eminence of adipose or fatty tissue just above the female genitals and over the symphysis pubis. It is exclusively present in women.
The symphysis pubis is the cartilaginous joint, which unites the superior arms of the left and right pubic bones.
The mons pubis is covered with pubic hair after puberty and its main function is to protect the underlying pubic bone above the bladder from trauma during sexual intercourse.
It contains sebaceous and sweat glands that create a sexually appealing smell to stimulate sexual arousal and attractiveness.
The pudendal cleft or the pudendal fissure or pudendal cleavage, also called the cleft of Venus, is a furrow situated at the base of the mons pubis. It is a part of the vulva between the two labia majora.
The clitoral hood and labia minora protrude into the pudendal cleft in varying degrees.
Labia majora are two longitudinal fleshy folds on either side of the pudendal cleft that extend from the mons pubis above to the perineum below.
They contain sweat and sebaceous glands. After puberty, they get covered with pubic hair. Translated, they mean large (Majora) lips (labia). They are comparable to the scrotum in males.
The labia majora form the lateral boundaries of the pudendal cleft, which contains the openings of the vagina and the urethra. After puberty, they may become a darker color.
Each labium majus has an outer, pigmented surface covered with pubic hair; and an inner, smooth surface containing large sebaceous glands.
Labia minora are the “small lips”, which form part of the vulva and are situated on the inner side of the labia majora. They form two hairless flaps on either side of the opening of the vagina.
They are situated below the mons pubis and medial to the labia majora in the pudendal cleft.
Collagen and elastin protein fibers present in them provide elasticity.
Many sebaceous glands present in the connective tissue of the labia minora provide lubrication and protection to the underlying tissues.
They show a lot of variation in their length, width, shape, and pigmentation among different women.
The Bartholin’s glands
The Bartholin’s glands or the greater vestibular glands are two pea-sized glands situated slightly to the posterior, one on either side of the vaginal opening.
They secrete mucus to lubricate the vagina and moisten the vaginal opening. This usually happens when the woman is sexually aroused.
The Clitoris is a small protrusion, comparable to the male penis except that it does not play any part in urination.
It is situated above where the two labia minora meet. Its size and sensitivity vary in the female reproductive system of different women.
A report, I read, mentions the size of the clitoris as between 1/8 to 3/8 of an inch in length. It is covered by a prepuce of skin just like the male penis.
The clitoris is very sensitive to touch and becomes erect during sexual stimulation. It is the primary cause of sexual pleasure in females and is capable of producing an orgasm.
Internal Female Reproductive Organs
The hymen is a mucous membrane situated at the beginning of the female genital tract just inside the opening of the vagina.
It is like a tight ring around the vaginal opening or may completely cover the vaginal opening. Its function is to protect the insides of the female genital tract.
It tears off during the woman’s first sexual intercourse resulting in slight bleeding. Tearing of the hymen can also happen due to exercises such as cycling or swimming and by insertion of the tampon.
It may then be not seen or may appear as tags of tissue around the vaginal opening.
Vagina anatomy and function
The vagina also referred to as the birth canal, is a fibromuscular canal extending from the vulva on the outside to the cervix of the uterus. Its main purpose is to enable sexual intercourse and to collect the semen ejaculated by the man and also for passage of the fetus during childbirth.
Its wall is lined by a mucous membrane, which is kept moist by the secretions of the cells lining its wall and by the cervical discharge. The normal vaginal discharge is clear and milky white in color.
The vaginal lining is smooth during pre-puberty and menopausal years. During the reproductive years, it has folds and wrinkles.
It has great elasticity to facilitate both the above functions of accommodating the erect penis during intercourse and as a birth canal accommodating the baby during childbirth.
Otherwise, the length of the unstimulated vagina varies from 2.75 inches to 3.25 inches in adult women.
The vagina is usually collapsed and is opened during sexual intercourse by the insertion of the penis, during a gynec examination, and during childbirth.
It acts as a passage for the sperm to go inside, for the menstruation period to flow, and as a birth canal for the child to be brought to the outside world.
The lower third of the vagina has elastic walls to allow for the opening of the vagina as per the need of time such as for sexual intercourse or childbirth.
It is these elastic muscles that contract involuntarily during a sexual organism.
The Uterus (womb)
The uterus is a hollow pear-shaped muscular organ, which serves the very important function of housing the developing fetus during pregnancy. It is the major organ of the female reproduction system.
In the pelvis, it lies behind the urinary bladder and in front of the rectum and is held in place by three important suspensory ligaments.
The uterus comprises three parts:
- The fundus is the upper rounded part of the uterus, which lies above the port of entry of the fallopian tubes.
- The cervix, the neck of the uterus, is the lower narrow part of the uterus, which opens into the vagina. It is conical in shape and half of it protrudes into the vagina through the upper anterior vaginal wall. The cervix is a small narrow channel made up of strong muscles. The function of the cervix is to direct the sperm deposited in the vagina up into the uterus. It also allows for the flow of menstrual blood and material from the uterus into the vagina. It acts as a birth canal allowing for the delivery of the baby.
- The body of the uterus also called the corpus, implants the fertilized ovum onto its inner wall called the endometrium. It houses the embryo during the first eight weeks, which then turns into the fetus or the developing baby during the full length of pregnancy helping to provide it with anchoring support, nutrition, and removal of waste.
The ovaries are two small oval-shaped glands, which are situated on either side of the uterus near the distal ends of the fallopian tube on either side. They are attached to the uterus by ligaments.
Each ovary is the size of a walnut about 3 cm long, 2.5 cm wide, and about 1 cm thick during the reproductive life of a woman between the age of puberty and menopause.
They are located near the lateral walls of the pelvic cavity. The ovaries produce ova or eggs and also hormones. It is the fertilization of the ovum by the sperm that gives rise to conception and subsequent pregnancy. Each ovary contains about 2, 00,000 eggs (ova). In her reproductive lifetime, a woman ovulates only about 300 to 400 eggs.
The ovary contains follicles and each follicle contains one oocyte (an immature egg), which may undergo meiotic division (nucleus division) to form an ovum (a mature egg).
Besides producing the eggs, the ovaries also synthesize the female sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone, and the male sex hormone, testosterone, which are so essential for the reproductive cycle.
The Fallopian Tubes
The fallopian tubes or oviducts are two narrow tubes, each about 4 to 6 inches in length, situated on either side of the uterus and attached to its upper side.
Each fallopian tube has an ovary at its distal end but is not directly connected to it. The distal openings of the fallopian tubes are called distal Ostia, which open into the abdominal cavity very close to the ovaries.
They serve to transport the ovum after ovulation from their distal end towards the uterus with the help of cilia (small hair), which propel the ovum forwards. Usually, fertilization of the ovum by the sperm (conception) takes place inside the fallopian tube while it is on its path toward the uterus.
The fertilized egg then moves towards the uterus where it implants itself on the wall of the uterus.
Functions of the Female Reproductive System
Why is the female reproductive system made of so many organs and what do they do?
Broadly, the female reproductive system and its organs perform the following functions with each of its parts dedicated to serving the most important function of reproduction.
- The vagina enables sexual intercourse to facilitate the deposit of semen (which contains sperm) from the male.
- The ovary produces the ovum or the female egg and releases it into the fallopian tube.
- The fallopian tube accepts the ovum and is usually the main place for fertilization of the ovum by the sperm, which has come from the man. This is called conception. The fallopian tube then transports the ovum (whether fertilized or not) to the uterus.
- The uterus forms the main and biggest part of the female reproductive anatomy. It is in the uterus that the fertilized ovum gets implanted on the uterine wall. This forms the initial stage of the beginning of pregnancy.
- In the absence of fertilization, the uterus sheds its inner lining and the unfertilized egg during menstruation. This, in everyday language, is called “period”.
- The female reproductive system and its female parts also bring about certain hormonal changes to prepare the female body for pregnancy should it occur and other hormone changes to bring about menstruation in the absence of conception.