04.10.13 Truth & Wisdom
BY Sarah Neal
In a small village in Southeast Asia, a windowless building stands solemnly among the pattern of dirt roads and rice fields. Its crude walls support a roof— a rusted patchwork of tin pieces stitched together with nails. The strongest part of the structure is its door and a steel lock that serve not to protect, but to prevent escape.
Inside, the hot air droops heavy and stale. A single light bulb hangs from a wooden rafter where winged insects have collected to frantically collide against the encased light– a mirage of freedom. Pushed in the corner is a small, metal bedframe and dilapidated mattress.
She is sitting there, feet dangling over the side, wearing a pair of worn flip flops that are two sizes too big. Her dark hair is dry and matted; her skin is dull from lack of nutrition.
Fear is her food. Oppression is her clothing. Every day she waits in terror of seeing the movement of footsteps beneath the door, hearing the sound of deep voices and laughter approaching; the click of a turning lock.
She is not a criminal, and yet she is a prisoner. She is a six-year-old girl who has been sold into sex slavery.
There are no words to adequately describe the horror millions of girls and young women endure every day at the pernicious hands of sex traffickers. I don’t even like to use the word “sex” in reference, because it’s not. It’s rape. It is not isolated to one country. This is a global crisis that infects every dark crevice and corner of our world.
According to UNICEF, more than 1.2 million children are being sold every year to brothels. This staggering number has caused human trafficking (including labor and sexual exploitation) to be the world’s second, most lucrative organized crime, garnishing more than $20 billion annually. Sadly, this amount seems to be increasing each year.
Most victims are girls and young women who have been kidnapped, lured into captivity by brothel owners posing as employers, or sold by their own families, sometimes for less than $200. They are raped repeatedly everyday as their captors collect the money from the assailants. They are beaten and starved if they fight or refuse. Many commit suicide to escape the unrelenting emotional and physical trauma.
These countless women remain nameless and faceless. However, one survivor of human trafficking fought to find a voice for those who cannot speak.
Her name is Somaly Mam.
Image by Asa Mathat
I first heard of Somaly from the program Half the Sky, which aired on PBS last year. It featured Somaly’s story of survival, and her organization’s efforts in Cambodia to rescue and rehabilitate victims in her country.
She has been named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, a Glamour Woman of the Year and a Conde Nast Traveler Visionary. She was also nominated as a CNN Hero, along with several international accolades. However, she finds her true reward in saving and empowering other women. Much like her tenacious spirit, her story takes hold of you, and never turns you loose. She bravely enters the unwelcoming brothels in Cambodia to rescue “her girls.” It is a dangerous mission. The lives of her and her family have been threatened. But she does not allow this to diminish her fierce drive to reach every women and girl with a message of hope and empowerment: to help everyone have a voice and a choice in their lives.
I recently had the tremendous honor and privilege of interviewing Somaly to discuss her life and her organization’s mission.
Somaly, tell us a little about your story- how you did you leave this horrific “life” and start rescuing other women who were enslaved?
I am Somaly, but I don’t know my real name, my real age or my real family. Somaly means “necklace of flower disappeared in the forest,” and I like to keep this name because of my story. I was sold when I was young— I think I was 12. It was all suffering; I was raped and enslaved during this time. However, I don’t regret this experience, because it is my life experience, and I turned around to help thousands of victims from slavery. It makes me stand up and fight.
You endured horrific abuse. How did you survive, mentally and emotionally?
My life was nothing— I was dead inside when I was in the brothels. I had no idea what life meant when this was my life. I survived in this darkness, I had no choice.
What would you say to a person reading this who has been sexually abused or exploited?
I would like to share this to all the victims and survivors around the world: to have them know that everything can happen, we just need passion and compassion, building up over time like drops of water. I would like all the people to understand that your bad experiences are not a bad thing if you can turn it into good.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
It’s not easy to explain. In Cambodia the challenges are a combination of 30 years of war, poverty, poor education, gender discrimination, people sacrificing their life for the family, and so many other factors. In Cambodia, gender equality is not yet the reality: women and girls are devalued, and for this reason, women become the victims— they are sold, they are abused, they are exploited. All of these things together have led to trauma, and to alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence. This is a part of my fight, every day.
It takes five minutes to save a girl from a brothel, but it can take three years or more to recover them. There are still many unsuccessful cases who are lured back to the brothels after reintegration, because they are lacking support from their family or the entire family depends on them for money. This is a challenge for which there is no easy answer.
And, finally, the corruption is a challenge: corruption makes it very difficult to protect the women and children who are victims of this profitable industry. We advocate for rule of law: to be sure that the right laws to protect victims and prosecute traffickers are in place, and that they are followed. We work closely with the government and the anti-trafficking police, and our survivors train them to recognize and address trafficking cases. With this, we have started to see real change.
What was the best moment of your life, to date?
I cannot think of one moment, but a combination of all moments together that give me strength and hope. To see the girls who are survivors, become so strong: they go to school, they grow up and get married, find jobs and have their own businesses—these are the best moments. We give them a voice and a choice in their own life, and they accomplish more than we would ever dream possible. To see the Voices For Change team grow as advocates and anti-trafficking leaders, I see hope for the next generation. And to watch my own children grow up to be smart, compassionate, passionate, and aware— I could not be more happy or proud.
Image by Amy Merrill
Tell us about your foundation. Besides physically rescuing women and children from the sex slave trade, what assistance does the Somaly Mam Foundation offer them?
We established the Somaly Mam Foundation with the goal of providing three things:
1. To support victim services. SMF provides financial and other in-kind support to our partner organizations who work directly with survivors of human trafficking and offer rescue and outreach services, centers for recovery and skills training, and reintegration support.
2. To eradicate slavery. We run global advocacy campaigns and lobbying efforts, leverage celebrity voices, and mobilize grassroots level activism, all with the goal of raising awareness worldwide and influencing decision-makers to end slavery.
3. To empower survivors. Our Voices For Change program recognizes the strength of survivors, giving them a platform for their voices to be heard and influence positive change. They help themselves through helping others, providing powerful mentorship to women undergoing rehabilitation or even those still within the sex industry. SMF also provides scholarships to survivors wishing to pursue higher education.
What can the person reading this article do to help your organization, and others, combat the sex slave trade?
One person can’t do everything, but all of us can do one thing to change the world.
Follow: Find SMF on Facebook (and our partners AFESIP on Facebook), and Somaly on Twitter and follow us. Learn more about what we do by going to our website and reading about our programs. Stay updated on latest developments.
Share: Educate your family and friends. Share news articles and stories. Tell them about our work, so they can never again say they did not know about sex slavery.
If you are in circles of influence, put pressure on people with power to take action: Pressure governments and policy-makers; encourage prosecution of johns and traffickers.
Help to change mindsets: look at these women and girls as victims and survivors of exploitation and not as prostitutes, and ensure that the rights of the victims and the voices of the survivors are heard. Read my book, The Road of Lost Innocence, and pass it on.
Get active: Join our worldwide network of grassroots level activists (visit Somaly.org to learn more). We can support you in running your own innovative events and campaigns in your community to raise awareness and end trafficking.
Support: We cannot do this work without financial support. Our team is hardworking and highly skilled, but the shelters need resources for food, water; programs need supplies, and we must lay the groundwork for survivor-led solution with training, support, and patience. We have a plan, and we know how we want to get there: but it will take funds to execute. We need your help.
Finally, how did you learn to find forgiveness?
I have learned to find forgiveness from my girls, my team and all supporters. The love and encouragement that I receive gives me hope.
Somaly, and other advocates like her, have gathered pieces of a broken past, crushed them down, and molded them to create a vessel that pours out love so that the girl who waits in fear will be rescued. She will no longer live in turmoil, but comfort; no longer eat bitterness, but joy; and no longer be clothed in shame, but strength.
She will be added to the army of The Brave Ones.
Featured image by Alexis Santi.