In the run up to International Women’s Day, Dr. Le Thi Kim Dung, an OB-GYN at a private clinic in Hanoi, offered a day of free hymen-reconstruction surgery.
The practice, which involves stitching a flap of vaginal lining which gets damaged during sex, produces bleeding during subsequent sexual activity.
Costing between $300 and $350, a substantial amount for some Vietnamese women, many are willing to pay for the quick and simple procedure.
Outraged that some men want to marry virgins because they believe it brings good luck, Dung says she wants to help women who lack confidence because their virginity was taken, voluntarily or otherwise, prior to marriage.
Five years ago, she says, her clinic saw only one or two hymen-reconstructive patients per month, but now that number has reached about 30.
A Growing Trend
Precisely what fuels the procedure's increasing popularity remains ambiguous.
Some argue the operation empowers Vietnamese women by giving them the option to have premarital sex without harming chances of finding a suitable husband.
But even in cases where a man knowingly weds a non-virgin, says Dung, her prior sexual experience can become a source of marital distress.
Khuat Thu Hong, director of the Institute of Social Sciences in Vietnam, says even though Vietnam has become more sexually liberal, traditional values still prize virginity.
"Nobody is surprised about premarital sex nowadays, it’s quite common," says Hong. "So men understand that it’s difficult to find a virginal woman. In reality, it’s different from the way people talk."
Apart from the physical risks of the surgery, however, Hong thinks the practice is damaging to women's social status, and that hymen reconstruction diminishes gender equality by pressuring women to conform to outdated expectations.
"When we are talking about gender equality, why don’t men do something as a gift for women?" she says. "It’s always women who have to do something, from restructuring the hymen to beautifying the vagina. It’s really ridiculous."
Healing Wounds of Sexual Abuse
According to Gynecologist Nguyen Thu Giang, deputy director of the Institute for Community Health and Development, also known as LIGHT, demand from female victims of sexual abuse is also increasing.
Although surgical treatment may heal traumatic injuries, she says, the therapy is different than hymen reconstruction.
"The first situation is not right, they try to replace virginity," she says. "The second situation is to heal the damage caused by abuse."
The latter, she says, repairs physical scars of sexual abuse but fails to address the victim's emotional trauma.
“If she is only having the surgery so she can get married, sometimes we ask her to come back with her mother or her partner and sometimes her partner accepts the abuse," says Giang, explaining that some prospective clients reconsider after counseling. "Sometimes her partner says she doesn’t need the surgery."
Each month, she adds, the LIGHT health center receives three or four women seeking treatment for extensive bleeding or infections after botched surgeries, which can threaten a woman's chances of bearing children.