Sex Trafficking in Cambodia

One Mam’s fight for her girls

Somaly Mam, the founder of the nonprofit Somaly Mam Foundation that fights sex trafficking in Cambodia, mothers many former victims of trafficking – most of whom are young girls. Her organization helps them rebuild their lives, supporting rescue operations, shelter services, and rehabilitation programs. Her dark eyes crinkle with pleasure when she recounts the resilience of her “children.” While her girls inspire her struggle, however, they also break her heart – many of them bear the death sentence of HIV/AIDS.

 “You know, I have my little girl. Today she is seven years old,” she tells CNN, her voice layered with the love of a proud mother. As she continues, however, her brow furrows with pain: “She had been sold at four years old to a foreigner pedophile. Today she has HIV/AIDS. One day she leave me. . . . She said, ‘Mommy, when you go out – you tell the man please? A few minutes of their pleasure, they kill me. I don’t want to die.’”

In Cambodia, the lack of money and education results in the absence of opportunity for many women, exposing them to a crippling vulnerability that traffickers exploit. Because many families are desperate for money, they will sell their own children into slavery; still others are deceived by pimps and believe that they are sending their child away to a career in another city and a chance at a better life. Without education or career skills, escaping from slavery, especially from a brothel, is nearly impossible.

Struggles like this are not localized to the impoverished countryside of Cambodia. Sex trafficking is in fact extremely widespread and international in scope, spanning both developing and developed nations. Defined as “a commercial sex act . . . induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained eighteen years of age” by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, sex trafficking is the third highest and fastest growing organized crime rate according to Global Financial Integrity.

Today, the numbers of trafficked victims are increasing, even as their age is decreasing. Though estimating the exact numbers are difficult because of the illegal and therefore undocumented nature of sex trafficking, UNICEF estimated 1.75 million sex slaves in 2001, journalist Nicholas Kristof proposed a “conservative estimate” of 3 million, and activist Kevin Bales produced the statistic of 27 million.

Whether it takes place in developing or developed nations, sex trafficking almost always involves the exploitation of a child’s vulnerability. The average age of recruitment in the United States ranging from 12 to 14 according to the US Department of Justice, and from ages 9 to 13 in India according to Apne Aap, a grassroots Indian organization engaged in fighting sex trafficking.

Somaly is herself a survivor of sex trafficking, but unlike the majority of its victims, her story does not end in death but activism. As the child of a tribal minority family in Cambodia, she was orphaned by the chaotic violence of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s. She was sold at the age of twelve into sexual slavery. During this period, she was beaten, tortured, and abused for more than eleven years.

“While I was in the brothel, I did not want to get out of it, because I thought no one could help me. I had been raped every single day,” Somaly recollects in a human trafficking conference at Princeton University. “There would be no hope, and no one would marry me. . . . At least in the brothel, I had the other girls who were in the same situation as me and we could talk. Who could we talk to if we escaped? Who could love us?”

The irreparable damage of sexual exploitation to a girl’s future is conveyed in the Cambodian word for prostitute, srey kouc, which means “broken woman.” Such a woman’s reputation is beyond repair; her very existence shames the family. Unsurprisingly, this stigmatization and the knowledge that they are “ruined” perpetuates a sense of despair among the victims. Most of these children – initially beaten into submission and carefully guarded by pimps – will no longer try to resist or escape after the first several years. They accept the sexual abuse as the only life left for them.

Somaly, then, is rendered exceptional by both her spirit and her escape. After a French aid worker helped her escape from her captors, Somaly lived in Paris for a time. Eventually, though, she returned to Cambodia to develop her own organization combating sex trafficking – a path that brought her, too, before an audience at Princeton University, where she was able to share her story and that of her children.

While sex trafficking is regarded as a women’s issue because most of its victims are female, it is one that affects everyone. The industry perpetuates a cycle of violence among the most vulnerable of society, targeting young girls from broken families and low socioeconomic standing. It tears apart the social fabric of families, stigmatizing the girls and destroying their ability to participate in society. Beyond the individual victims and their children, it promotes a culture of violence and degradation of women.

Somaly calls for an end to the cycle of violence. She admits that she sometimes feels paralyzed by rage, especially when she sees the brutality inflicted on the young girls who escape to her shelter. Her girls are walking reminders of the own scars she bears on her body.

“When I got out of the brothel, I hated women for hitting me, and I hated men for raping me. I hated everyone. I didn’t love at all,” she recalls. “I know what I have been through; I never forget it. Never. Psychologists don’t work; we cannot forget what we have been through, twenty or thirty clients a day. We cannot forget that.”

It is her children who have finally freed her from this modern-day slavery, in also reminding her of love. The experience of being loved and loving others eventually enabled her to move forward: even to forgive, though never to forget. They save each other every day.

Like any mother, this Mam fights to protect her children and provide a future for them brighter than her own – a future free from the traumatizing chains of hatred. She teaches her daughters the lesson of love: “I teach myself and I teach my girls to be forgiving. Helping other people is helping ourselves.”

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Stephanie Tam

I am a postgraduate student in the department of social policy and intervention at Worcester College, University of Oxford. I graduated with a B.A. in English literature from Princeton University. My research interests include trauma, hybridity, migration, gender, psychology/psychoanalysis -and fantasy literature.

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