Cambodia’s YouTube provocateur: ‘Is a woman’s value measured by virginity?’

From menstruation to masturbation, no topic is off limits for a candid online activist who has established a big following in culturally conservative Cambodia

presenter is standing in front of a white sheet with splashes of pink, signifying blood. The woman, Catherine V Harry, turns to camera and, after a standard Khmer greeting, gets straight to the point.

“Is the value of women determined by virginity?” she asks. It is this directness, in a country laced with taboos and tradition, that has garnered the 22-year-old more than 1 million views on her Facebook video channel, A Dose of Cath.

“We have been conditioned to think that our value is based on our hymen and the kind of guy that will marry us,” said Catherine later, in a cafe in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.

Her objective is to educate fellow Cambodians about feminism, sexual and reproductive health, and other topics not openly discussed in the south-east Asian country. She believes the culture of silence surrounding these issues disempowers women.

“I want to open a discussion about those things – it’s time to start talking about topics that we are not supposed to talk about because all of them suppress women,” she says.

In the rather limited world of Cambodian vlogging, her refreshing, outspoken views have made her stand out, sys Kounila Keo, managing director of PR firm Redhill and founder of the When in Phnom Penh lifestyle blog.

“I think that her content is definitely different from other content that I’ve seen in Cambodia, and she’s put a lot of effort each time she produces vlogs. Other vloggers mostly talk about products and brands,” she says.

No topic is off-limits. The three- to four-minute videos, which Catherine posts regularly on Facebook, have covered topics ranging from masturbation and menstruation to contraception and abortion.

But such openness has, unsurprisingly, met with criticism.

“Some people are saying that I am ruining their culture,” Catherine says.

Her video on virginity has proved the most contentious to date, taking square aim at “Chbab Srey”, a traditional code of conduct for women.

“Some boys said that I was encouraging women to have sex and calling for sexual liberation. They were offended by that and kept saying that men don’t like using leftovers.”

It was also the most sought after of her vlogs, attracting 1.7m Facebook views, 42,000 shares and almost 3,000 comments.

“I also get good comments, and people who support me,” says Catherine.

She wouldn’t be able to do what she does if it weren’t for the backing of family and friends.

Muyly Lim, a medical student in Phnom Penh, is a fan. “I like her videos. Sometimes I might not agree with everything she says, but I think it is important to have these conversations.”

Sek Sokhom, of the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia – the main reproductive health NGO in the country – says sexual and reproductive health topics are so sensitive that teachers are too embarrassed to conduct sex education classes.

Sokhom blames this lack of knowledge, and traditional attitudes that discriminate against women, for a 50% increase in teen pregnancies in the past four years. She says it is also the reason behind alarming rates of violence against women in Cambodia.

Catherine says Facebook is one of the few spaces young people can speak freely, ask questions and participate in a conversation they wouldn’t dare to have with their friends face to face.

Figures in February 4.8 million Facebook users, in a country of almost 16 million, and an ever-increasing access to smart phones.

“Because they can watch [the videos] on their smartphone in their bedroom and then they can comment anonymously, that’s the way they can get involved in the conversation,” she says.

This article was published in The Guardian on 9 September 2017. 

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