Somaly Mam has dedicated her life to battling forced prostitution due to the fact that she herself was sold as a child to a Cambodian brothel. After enduring torture and rapes, she escaped and has become an outspoken anti-trafficking activist.
Courageous women like Somaly, both in the United States and abroad, are making sure that human trafficking is increasingly recognized as a central human rights challenge. There are estimates that more than 12 million individuals are engaged in forced labor, including sexual servitude in a study by a United Nations agency. Another U.N. report has estimated that in Asia alone - one million children are involved in the sex trade under conditions that are indistinguishable from slavery. Every year, over two million women and children, as young as three years old, will be sold into prostitution for as little as ten dollars. Estimates are that up to 27 million individuals live enslaved, many of whom are subject to rape, torture, forced abortions, starvations, and threats to family members. The average slave in the year 1850 would have cost the equivalent of forty thousand dollars to purchase, but today that figure is now just about ninety dollars. Modern day enslavement is so common that it occurs under our very noses, but the fact is, there is not enough awareness of the subject for people to recognize the signs of slavery when it is paraded before them. Public awareness can change everything from attitudes to laws and must be brought to the forefront. To Somaly Mam, the fight against modern day slavery is a moral imperative and civic duty that must be undertaken on behalf of those whose voices have been silenced. Even though the situation is of staggering proportions, many can be empowered to use their time, resources, and skills in a positive way to stop this horrible crime. Somaly started the Somaly Mam Foundation as a means of ending human trafficking around the globe.
Somaly Mam was born into a tribal minority family in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia around the same time the Khmer Rouge savagely took hold of the nation. By the time Somaly was 5 years old, more than 1.5 million people had been killed under the Pol Pot regime. Against a backdrop of terror, torture, and decimation, Somaly was only 12 years old when a man posing as her grandfather sold her into sexual slavery. Forced to work in a brothel alongside other children, Somaly was brutally tortured and raped several times a day, week after week, month after month, for years. Then one night she was forced to watch her best friend viciously murdered. Fearing she would meet that same fate, Somaly escaped with the help of an aid worker and fled to France in 1993. Though she is universally recognized as a visionary for her courage, dignity, ingenuity, and resilience, the success of Somaly has come at a large cost as she and her family have faced terrifying death threats and violence. In an effort to deter her work, brothel owners even kidnapped, drugged and raped Mam's then 14-year-old daughter in 2006. Asked why she continues to fight in the face of such fierce and frightening opposition, Somaly resolutely responds, 'I don’t want to go without leaving a trace.' Somaly to this day lives among the women and children she rescues and stays by their side as they walk the difficult path to recovery and freedom. Somaly Mam has emerged to become a heroine for women’s rights and the Somaly Mam Foundation has established a funding vehicle to support anti-trafficking organizations and to provide victims and survivors with a platform from which their voices can be heard around the world. SMF is dedicated to ending slavery around the world with a results-oriented three step approach: survivor services, survivor empowerment programs, and the eradication of slavery through awareness and advocacy. The Somaly Mam Foundation has liberated over 7000 women and children from sexual slavery, and works tirelessly around the globe to rehabilitate the survivors.
Conde Nast photographer Norman Jean Roy documented these survivors in his book TRAFFIK (PowerHouse Books). In the introduction of the book, Marianne Pearl wrote - Somaly brings the girls to school, and teaches them skills like sewing and cooking. She tells them that she’s been there, that life can begin again and that not every man is evil. She is the person the girls write to when their pain is unspeakable. She is their role model and they all want to be just like her - a beautiful woman who speaks to the world and who smiles so we will listen. Her personal story, whether it is heard in person in numerous speeches she has delivered or read in her amazing autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence, belays the maddening horror these women and children have suffered. No one can know, cannot imagine and cannot ever begin to fathom what it is to be treated as chattel, to be locked up and taken out only to be raped over and over again. We cannot understand what it is to be a slave for our lives have been built on a foundation of freedom from the day we were born. Norman Jean Roy wrote in the afterword of his book TRAFFIK
is not meant to be any one particular story, but rather a collective one. It is a visual slice of this hideous world of human trafficking and the people at the center of it. At the rehabilitation center, there is a large but modest open-air structure, built up on stilts, housing looms for weaving, manual sewing machines and a kitchen area. But I am especially struck by the presence of so many young girls. I am in awe of their ages — seventeen, thirteen, eight, event a little girl of three. All I can think is — How? Why? Why would someone want to rape these girls? How could someone harm them so terribly? Where are their protectors, their teachers? And where are we?
There is a pain and a pride and a silence that belies every one of the images in his book. Words may never be able to explain the force of destruction that misogyny breeds. Roy’s photographs make us look closely at our assumptions - about women, about sexuality, about slavery and question what we believe to be true. The world’s oldest profession is not prostitution; it is pimping. Once we consider revising our myths, we begin to understand the damage they have inflicted.
To look upon these women is a to understand that the shame of their degradation is a global burden. Slavery is real, and it is happening today. Not just in Southeast Asia, but in so-called free countries like yours and mine.
Somaly Mam in her own words:
I have committed my life to fighting this horrible scourge on humanity. Seeing innocent young women and children whose lives have been forever scarred leaves no doubt that they need a champion who is willing to invest all their time and energy towards eradicating the shameful practice of human trafficking. I cannot wage this fight alone and call upon anyone who cares about the innocent victims to donate their time, money and advocacy to this important cause. Each contribution means everything to the victims and know that I will be forever grateful for those who help make such an important difference.
A native Cambodian, Somaly Mam's family struggled through poverty and limited opportunities during her childhood. Born to a tribal minority family in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia, Somaly Mam began life in extreme poverty. With limited options as a severely marginalized ethnic group, and living in unimaginable despair, her family often resorted to desperate means to survive. Because of this, Somaly was sold into a life of sexual slavery many times by a man who posed as her grandfather. At a very young age, she was forced to work in a brothel with many other young girls and they were all treated horrifically through torture, manipulation, and scare tactics. Her past fuels her passion to help young children and women who are victims of human trafficking. This work also has brought Somaly enormous international attention, including recognition as a CNN Hero and appearances on television specials featured on CBC, CBS, NBC and MSNBC. In 2006, Somaly was honored as Glamour Magazine's Woman of the Year for her courageous work in fighting sexual slavery. That same year, she was also chosen as one of eight female heroines to serve as a flag bearer for the Torino 2006 Winter Games. Shortly thereafter, she was profiled as a CNN Hero in recognition of her brave fight to save these innocent victims from this horrible and silent crime.
Born to a tribal minority family in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia, Somaly Mam began life in extreme poverty. With limited options as a severely marginalized ethnic group, and living in unimaginable despair, her family often resorted to desperate means to survive. This confluence of dire circumstances led to the unspeakable horrors that would mark Somaly's early years. Somaly was sold into sexual slavery by a man who posed as her grandfather. To this day, due to the passing of time and the unreliability of a wounded memory, Somaly still does not know who this man was to her. Yet his actions set her on an unimaginable path fraught with danger, desperation, and ultimately...triumph.
Forced to work in a brothel along with other children, Somaly was brutally tortured and raped on a daily basis. One night, she was made to watch as her best friend was viciously murdered. Fearing she would meet that same fate, Somaly heroically escaped her captors and set about building a new life for herself. She vowed never to forget those left behind and has since dedicated her life to saving victims and empowering survivors. In 1996, Somaly established a Cambodian non-governmental organization called AFESIP (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire). Under Somaly's leadership, AFESIP employs a holistic approach that ensures victims not only escape their plight, but have the emotional and economic strength to face the future with hope. With the launch of The Somaly Mam Foundation in 2007, Somaly has established a funding vehicle to support anti-trafficking organizations and to provide victims and survivors with a platform from which their voices can be heard around the world.
Click Here to make a donation to the Somaly Mam Foundation
Excerpt from article by Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times
In the abstract, the 21st-century abolitionist movement sounds uplifting and even glamorous. But riding beside Somaly in her car toward a brothel bristling with AK-47 assault rifles, it was scary.
This town of Anlong Veng is in northern Cambodia near the Thai border, with a large military presence; it feels like something out of the Wild West. Somaly, whose efforts are financed mostly through American supporters of her Somaly Mam Foundation, had sneaked into this brothel and surreptitiously photographed very young girls. With the photographs, she convinced Cambodia’s anti-trafficking police to mount the raid.
It didn’t help my nerves that Somaly, whom I’ve known for years, is fearless. Brothel-owners have fought back ferociously against Somaly: They’ve sent death threats, held a gun to her head and shot up her car.
“We all know that our lives are in danger,” she says, a little too cavalierly. “I’ve never been so happy in my life. They can kill me now.”
When Somaly refused to back off, she said the traffickers kidnapped her 14-year-old daughter and gang-raped the girl with a video camera rolling. The daughter was recovered in a brothel, and Somaly blames herself. It’s a credit to the courage of mother and daughter that they remain steadfast, upbeat and close, and determined to make a difference. These days, Somaly is very careful with that daughter and her other children.
The three unmarked police cars ahead of us pulled up in front of the brothel, and the police and prosecutor ran in. Somaly and I followed and watched as police with assault rifles confiscated cellphones from the brothel manager, a middle-aged woman, and her male partner, so that they couldn’t call for reinforcements.
We quickly found five girls and one young woman, three Cambodians and three Vietnamese. The youngest turned out to be a seventh grader trafficked from Vietnam three months earlier, making her about 12 years old.
The anti-trafficking police found 10 rooms equipped with beds and full of discarded condoms in the trash; the rooms all locked with padlocks from the outside, presumably to incarcerate girls inside. Several other young girls Somaly had photographed in her earlier visit couldn’t be found, despite a frantic search of all the locked rooms. “They’re probably kept at another house in town, but we don’t know where it is,” Somaly said.
Soon the mood turned ugly. The brothel-owning family had strong military connections, and the man was wearing the uniform of a senior military officer. Someone inside the brothel must have called in reinforcements, and seven armed soldiers soon arrived to order the police and prosecutor to release the military officer. The prosecutor responded with courage and integrity. He declared that the military officer would have to be taken to the police station. “If you want to stop me, you can shoot me if you dare,” he told the soldiers.
The soldiers backed down, but, in the end, the army officer was not charged. The woman, who had more day-to-day involvement in managing the girls, is expected to be prosecuted, and the brothel presumably will now be out of operation. The girls were placed in a shelter run by Somaly, and they are receiving plenty of love from other girls previously extricated from sexual slavery.
That’s how the battle against human trafficking is being fought around the world. Ultimately, the way to end this scourge is to make it less profitable and more risky for the traffickers. Above all, that means targeting not the girls but putting traffickers and pimps in jail, whether in Cambodia or in New York.
Slowly, that is happening. I can see the progress here in Cambodia, where 10-year-old girls were openly for sale when I began reporting on forced prostitution. Now they’re still sold, but fewer of them, and more discreetly — and traffickers are going to jail. There may well be prostitution a century from now, but we don’t have to accept 12-year-olds being raped until they get AIDS.
In the 19th century, the world conquered traditional slavery. And in this century, with leaders like Somaly, we can emancipate the victims of human trafficking.
My name is Somaly. At least that's the name I have now. Like everyone in Cambodia, I've had several. Names are the result of temporary choices. You change them the way you'd change lives. As a small child, I was called Ya, and sometimes just Non - (Little One). When I was taken away from the forest by the old man, I was called Aya, and once, at a border crossing, he told the guard my name was Viriya--I don't really know why. I got used to people calling me all sorts of names, mostly insults. Then, years later, a kind man who said he was my uncle gave me the name Somaly (The Necklace of Flowers Lost in the Virgin Forest). I liked it; it seemed to fit the idea of who I felt I really was. When I finally had the choice, I decided to keep that name as my own.
I will never know what my parents called me. But then I have nothing from them, no memories at all. My adoptive father once gave me this typically Khmer advice: 'You shouldn't try to discover the past. You shouldn't hurt yourself.' I suspect he knows what really happened, but he has never talked to me about it. The little I do know I've had to piece together with vague recollections and some help from history.
I spent my earliest years in the rolling countryside of northeastern Cambodia, surrounded by savanna and forests, not far from the high plains of Vietnam. Even today, when I have the chance to go into the forest, I feel at home. I recognize smells. I recognize plants. I instinctively know what's good to eat and what's poisonous. I remember the waterfalls. The sound of them is still in my ears. We children would bathe naked under the cascading water and play at holding our breath. I remember the smell of the virgin forest. I have a buried memory of this place.
The people of Bou Sra, the village where I was born, are Phnong. They are an old tribe of mountain people, quite unlike the Khmer who dominate the lowlands of Cambodia. I have inherited the typical Phnong dark skin from my mother. Cambodians see it as black and ugly. In Khmer, the word 'Phnong' means 'savage'. Throughout Southeast Asia, people are very sensitive about skin color. The paler you are, the closer to 'moon color', the more highly you are prized. A plump woman with white skin is the supreme object of beauty and desire. I was dark and thin and very unattractive.
I was born sometime around 1970 or 1971, when the troubles began in Cambodia. My parents left me with my maternal grandmother when I was still a small child. Perhaps they were seeking a better life, or perhaps they were forced to leave. Before I turned five, the country had been carpet-bombed by the Americans. Then it was seized by the murderous regime of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. The four years of Khmer Rouge rule, from 1975 to 1979, were responsible for the deaths of about one in five people in Cambodia through execution, starvation, or forced labor. In the storm of events, countless others were simply swept away from their villages and families without leaving a trace. People were displaced to work camps, where they toiled as slaves, or were forced to fight for the regime. There are many reasons why my parents might have left the forest.
The story I like to tell myself is that my parents and grandmother always had my best interests at heart. Among the Phnong, the mother's lineage determines ethnicity. So despite my father being Khmer, when my parents left, my place was with the Phnong in Mondulkiri Province. Not long thereafter my grandmother would also disappear, much too soon for me to have any lasting memory of her. Mountain people up and leave for any old reason, as soon as anything displeases them. No one expected an explanation, especially not during those troubled years. So when my grandmother left the forest, no one knew where she went. I don't think I was abandoned - she probably thought I'd be safest in the village. There was no way she could have known that the forest would not be my home for long.
Our village was nothing more than a dozen round huts clustered in a forest clearing. The huts were made of plaited bamboo, their straw roofs low to the ground. Most families shared a single large hut with no partition between the communal sleeping platform and the cooking area. Other families kept themselves separate. With no parents or other family in the village, I would sleep on my own in a hammock. I lived like a little savage. I slept here or there, and ate where I could. I was at home everywhere and nowhere. I don't remember any other children who slept alone among the trees, as I did. Perhaps I wasn't taken in by anyone because I was of mixed race, being part Phnong and part Khmer. Or perhaps I just made a decision to be by myself.
Being an orphan in Cambodia is no rare condition. It is frighteningly ordinary. I wasn't generally unhappy, but I remember feeling cold all the time. On particularly bitter or rainy nights, a kind man, Taman, would make space for me in his home. He was a Cham, a Muslim Khmer, but his wife was Phnong. I can't remember her name, but I thought she was beautiful with her long black hair tied behind her head with a bamboo stick, her high cheekbones, and a necklace made of shiny black wood and animal teeth. She was nice to me. Sometimes she would try to wash my long hair, rubbing the ash of a special herb into it to clean it, and then oiling it with pig fat and combing it with her fingers while she sang. She wore an intricately woven black and red cloth around her waist. Some women would leave their breasts bare, but Taman's wife covered hers.
Taman, like the other men, wore a loincloth that left his buttocks bare. The men wore strings of beads and bows strapped to their backs and had thick cylinders of wood pierced through their earlobes. We children would be naked most of the time. We would play or help make clothes together out of thick, flat leaves wrapped with vines. Taman's wife would weave for hours on end, sitting on the floor with her legs stretched out in front of her and the bamboo loom tied to her feet.
Her teeth were filed into sharp points. Phnong girls file and blacken their teeth when they become women, but I left the village long before the time for filing teeth.
I was always looking for a mother so that I could be held in her arms, kissed, and stroked, like Taman's wife held her children. I was very unhappy not to have a mother like everyone else. My only confidants were the trees. I talked to them and told them about my sorrow. They listened, understood, and made discreet signs in my direction. They were my only true friends, along with the moon. When things got unbearable, I confessed my secrets to the waterfalls, because the water couldn't reverse its flow and betray me. Even today, I sometimes talk to trees. Other than that, I almost never spoke as a child. There wouldn't have been much point--nobody would have listened.
I found my own food. I would roam the forest and eat what I could find: fruit, wild vegetables, and honey. There were also plenty of insects, such as grasshoppers and ants, to eat. I particularly loved the ants. I still know where to look to find fruits and berries, and I still know that there are bees you can follow to find their honey. And I still know that you should look down because there are mushrooms on the ground, but also snakes.
If I caught an animal I would take it to Taman's wife to cook. She cooked meat under a layer of ash, because ash is naturally salty. Sometimes she dried the little pieces of meat in buffalo dung, mixed them with bitter herbs and rice, and cooked them over the fire. The first time I returned to the village as an adult, almost twenty-five years later, I discovered that dish again and I ate so much I made myself sick.
The mountain land in the Mondulkiri region was ill suited for growing rice, so the entire village had to work together to grow our food. The forest had to be burned to create rice paddies. Every few years, the forest had to be burned so we could grow rice, and we would be forced to go farther and farther afield in search of good soil. The distances were vast, especially for my little legs, and sometimes we'd have to walk for several days. We had no carts or work animals like the Khmer had in their flooded rice paddies. Everything we brought back to the village we had to carry ourselves.
When the rice was harvested, several villages would gather around a fire to celebrate. We would sacrifice a buffalo to the spirits who lived in the forest and dance to the beat of the metal gongs. There'd be endless banqueting and lots of rice wine. I remember the earthenware jars being enormous, almost as tall as I was. We'd drink it straight from the jar, one by one, sipping through a bamboo straw. Even children were allowed to join in. I remember a great deal of kindness toward the children on these occasions. The Phnong people are good to children unlike the Khmer.
Our hills were so remote that probably no doctor or nurse had ever set foot in them. There were certainly no schools. I never saw a Buddhist or Christian preacher. And although my childhood coincided with the Khmer Rouge regime, I also have no recollection of ever seeing soldiers. The Khmer Rouge had decreed that mountain people like the Phnong were 'core people'. We were examples for others to follow, because we had no contact with Western habits and lived collectively. Our forest and hills protected us from the suffering that engulfed the rest of Cambodia while I was a small child.
Pol Pot had abolished money throughout the entire country of Cambodia, along with school diplomas, motor vehicles, eyeglasses, books, and any other sign of modern life. But I don't think that's why we had no currency. The Phnong never needed money. If the grown-ups wanted something we couldn't make or grow or hunt, they traded for it. If we wanted a cabbage, we went to ask a neighbor who had planted some. He would give us cabbage without asking for anything in return. Now it's different: the people from Phnom Penh arrive on weekends or during the holidays in their big 4x4s...
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Yabanci is a book by a Dutch woman who moved from Holland to Turkey to starta new life in a Turkish village overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. A great read for those who are considering a move abroad or have lived in a different culture. Available in English as an ebook or in Dutch in both print and popular ebook formats.. take a look