The government has urged the owner of a clinic in Phnom Penh and media across the country to cease promotion of the hospital’s controversial “virgin surgery” as a matter of “honour”.
In a letter sent to Victoria International Hospital on Friday, and a separate letter released to the media yesterday, Information Minister Khieu Kannarith said that promotion of the surgery affects the “moral and traditional beauty of Cambodian society” and the “honour” of patients who come to the hospital for other procedures.
“To avoid the negative impacts of this promotion … which contains excessive details [about the procedure] that affect people’s feelings, please can all publishers stop promoting it urgently?” the letter says.
Hymenoplasty is the surgical reconstruction of the hymen, which is widely acknowledged as a symbol of virginity.
At the clinic yesterday morning, a Post reporter was prevented from speaking with hospital staff. A receptionist later said that she was not authorised to speak to the media, and multiple calls were not returned.
Outside the clinic in Tuol Kork district, reactions to the procedure were mixed.
Market vendor Chan Srey, 32, said she heard the operation advertised on the radio and television.
“When I listened to it and watched it, I felt so shy about what it was promoting,” she said.
Srey added that she thought the surgery could encourage women to be more sexually active.
“I think that some women will think that they will not need to save their virginity, because now a hospital in Cambodia has a service to make them virgins again,” she explained.
Vong Samphos, a garment worker and member of women’s rights group Women’s Network for Unity, said that “it is their [women’s] right” to have the procedure.
“I think that the surgery is not a kind of illegal operation; it shows advances in modern technology,” she said. But, she added, any advertisement campaign that could have a negative impact on a woman’s honour should be curbed.
Opposition lawmaker and former minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua, however, took a different view of the matter altogether.
“It’s not just the advertisement, the Ministry of Health must immediately go to monitor the clinic,” she said. “National health has to be controlled.”
The ministry needs to monitor “a huge range of clinics that offer anything from curing breast cancer to anything under the sky”, she added.
Officials at the Ministry of Health could not be reached yesterday. But on Tuesday, Health Minister Mam Bunheng vowed to examine and strengthen health services across the country.
Sochua said the procedure should be banned. But she added that this alone would not be enough, and called for a nationwide “attitude change” towards gender and sexuality that would put an end to demand for the procedure.
Explaining that this was not the first time she had heard of women undergoing the procedure, Sochua said that women in Cambodia are pressured to maintain their virginity until they are married.
“Society dictates that they need to be virgins before marriage, that is the problem,” she said.
She added that there was a risk of the operation going “underground”, with unlicensed doctors targeting poor women and victims of sexual trafficking.
“We need to protect women, and in order for women to be protected, they need to be educated, and have the right information. They have to be able to defend themselves against social pressures.”