Former sex slave fights illegal trade

Monday, June 21, 2010

"Girls are taught only shame and ignorance about their bodies and men have their first sexual experience in brothels. Rape is the only thing they know." Photo: AFP

June 22, 2010


Somaly Mam emerged from a life of sex slavery in Cambodia to become a champion of women's rights and one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people on the planet.

Abandoned by her parents, Mam was raped at 12, forced to marry at 14 and then sold into prostitution.

She suffered years of abuse before escaping with the help of a Medicin Sans Frontieres worker, whom she later married.

Mam has never had any formal schooling, yet she now speaks five languages.

She has become a tireless activist heading two organisations which fight sexual slavery, and has received international humanitarian awards.

Mam spoke about her extraordinary life during her first visit to Australia, in between a flurry of book signings, public lectures and meetings with politicians.

Her autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence, has been reprinted many times.

It is a grim story of abuse - young lives broken by rape, torture and starvation together with betrayal by the very people who should have protected their own children.

Poverty also causes Cambodian families to sell their daughters into prostitution.

Mam says her story is symptomatic of a country with a long history of treating females worse than livestock.

"Cambodian society is about violence and submission," she told AAP.

"That smile people associate with gentle Cambodian women is a lie.

"It's always been like that. Women have been beaten slaves since before the Khmer Rouge, who killed any compassion there was.

"Although the situation is changing, 30 years later Cambodian society is still struggling. People only care about themselves."

Cambodians are a silent people, Mam says, and women's suffering is also endured in silence, compounded by a lack of education in all spheres.

"Girls are taught only shame and ignorance about their bodies and men have their first sexual experience in brothels. Rape is the only thing they know."

Up to 70 per cent of brothel clients are Cambodian men and the remaining 30 per cent are foreigners including paedophiles targeting children, she says.

Although Mam was able to escape her past by living in France for a while with her French husband Pierre, she continues to be haunted by nightmares and post-traumatic stress.

Mam says she felt driven to rescue girls like herself. Together with Pierre she started saving victims of sexual slavery in Cambodia even though police and corrupt politicians were as bad as the pimps and clients who wanted her gone.

She was one of the founding members of AFESIP (Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances), which has rescued and rehabilitated over 4000 women since 1996.

Now divorced, Mam says her traumatic past makes it impossible for her to be in a relationship.

But becoming a mother helped her feel love for the first time.

Mam has three children aged 18, 14 and eight. The oldest girl, Ning, is her sister's daughter whom she adopted.

"I'm not a gentle girl and life has been a fight, but out of this, and becoming a mother, came love."

The motherly love she discovered now fuels her mission in Cambodia, where she lives, to maintain three shelters for rescued sex slaves where their dignity is rebuilt through nurturing and education.

"It takes five minutes to rescue a girl and then the hard work starts," she says.

"First give them love until they feel it and they feel safe. Prove to them they can trust, and then start building life skills."

Bill Livermore, the US head of the Somaly Mam Foundation, says a key to ending trafficking is empowering women.

"Access to education, law and the economy is a must. If you take 50 per cent of the population out of those areas, countries do not thrive. Cambodia is very poor".

Livermore also advocates embarrassing governments who tolerate the sex slavery scourge "because governments won't change unless they are embarrassed to change".

He says the rehabilitation success rate in Cambodia soared after survivors were encouraged to rescue other girls.

"It went up from 65 per cent to 90 per cent because they were able to bond with the prostitutes and that's the kind of skill that a PhD from Harvard will never give you," he says.

The foundation was created in the US in 2007 and has a combination of corporate and private funding - not a cent comes from the United Nations or any government body.

Mam's high international profile helps, although old enemies remain. There have been threats on her life and she has a driver and a full-time bodyguard.

"If they kill me, there will be many more to take my place," she says.

  • One in 40 Cambodian girls is sold into sexual slavery
  • Human trafficking is the second-largest organised crime in the world, even bigger than the drugs trade
  • 2-4 million women and girls will be sold into prostitution worldwide over the next 12 months
  • Over a million will be small children
  • Some girls will be sold for as little as $US10 and will be as young as five
  • Profits from sexual slavery are estimated at up to $US12 billion annually
Sources: US State Department, UNICEF, UN Office of Drugs and Crime
The Road of Lost Innocence, by Somaly Mam, is published by Virago Press.
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