Few countries have pressed the buttons of civil rights groups more than Vietnam. Its crackdown on bloggers and dissent is in itself a contradiction of its efforts to open up a constitutional debate which has had only mixed success and led to the jailing of ordinary citizens simply for expressing their opinions.
However, there are those in Vietnam who have cultivated government policies which are in-keeping with the processes of a modern state and daring in the handling of sensitive issues.
The government has announced that three state run hospitals will be allowed to practice transgender surgery and Hanoi has also said it will offer cash payments to families with daughters as an incentive to help end centuries of cultural prejudices dictating a preference for boys over girls.
Economic incentives to promote daughters in families is not before its time but could go a long way in redressing imbalances, given the widespread preference in Vietnam for sons who are perceived as providing a bonus for a family’s finances.
Under the plan, U.S. $123 million will be spent on programs that aim to bring Vietnam’s gender ratio closer in line with the global norm of about 102 girls for every 106 boys. This compares with a current national ratio of 100 girls for every 112 boys. In some parts of the country that difference is much greater.
That decision was announced as Vietnam said it would nominate three state hospitals to perform gender change surgery, an intriguing and bold move.
In non-communist countries governments have shown a preference to allow private hospitals and clinics to go it alone in developing health services to fit people seeking sex change operations.
This allows governments, Western and Asian alike, to avoid all those awkward questions surrounding gender change and people’s sexual preferences — which would arise from a moralizing public if such operations were funded by the public purse.
Communist countries don’t have that luxury. As such Vietnam has delivered a government policy outlining what the three hospitals can and cannot do and in the process has produced an array of figures sure to challenge conventional thinking.
For what the government says are “sexual defects” the law will allow medical intervention. It says one in 11,000 people have a “gender disability.” Of 2,000 new born babies, one will “have genitals which do not match their chromosomes” and it says these “defects stem from genetic mutations.”
The Vietnamese medical reasoning does sound tremendously insensitive and does little to challenge stereotypes that would have you believe there is something inherently wrong with people who believe they were born with the wrong body type and need corrective surgery.
But the government has produced a pragmatic answer to an issue that all countries struggle with or ignore. Along with its policy on promoting daughters, Vietnam could become an international benchmark in dealing with issues that challenge cultural norms.