Cambodia has become one of the world’s hubs for human trafficking -a hell on earth where one survivor stands tall.
The residents of a foster home in the Kampong Chan province hold a celebration in honour of Somaly Mam – a woman who has saved each and every one of them from the horrors of incestuous families and prostitution.
“This is one of the girls who was sold into brothels and she was raped every day because her mother prostituted her,” she told euronews.
The girls are prey to local beliefs and sex tourism – and the prostitution victims are getting younger.
“Today there are girls who are three years old, who are in brothels, three years old who were raped! In the Asian tradition, it’s said that if you sleep with virgins, it gives youth, white skin, it gives luck. There is another belief that if you are HIV positive – if you have AIDS – and if you have sex with girls who are virgins, it cures AIDS. The hardest part for me is seeing customers who are foreigners, who are white, who are educated with little girls,” she explained.
For more than 20 years, Somaly Mam has fought to give a second life to these victims. As the head of her association AFESIP, she is a leading figure in the fight against sex slavery in Southeast Asia. A hell from which she herself is a survivor.
Sold at the age of 12, she spent 10 years in Cambodian brothels. Rape, torture and humiliation are the painful experiences that drive her struggle forward.
She explained: “It takes five minutes to save a girl in the brothel. But after five minutes what do you do? You do everything so that they become, maybe not as normal as you, but to build their confidence and encourage them. It takes time, time, time. That’s why I say that the scars on the outside, can be operated on. But for the scars on the inside, there’s only love – there as patience, compassion. We are here to heal.”
Sina Vann was rescued by Somaly from the sex industry that kept her prisoner for two years after she arrived from Vietnam at the age of 13. Heading the team of former victims who have joined AFESIP, Sina now offers help and advice to prostitutes.
In a brothel in Phnom Penh, they have found no other way to survive than in the red light district of the capital. All of them have spent their adolescence in the hands of traffickers and Sina knows all too well what they have been through.
She described her ordeal: “I’ve been shocked, I have a lot of scars a lot, she says she has scars too. Because I cannot get a lot of clients. I was just twelve, thirteen years old, so what I do with the clients – a lot of clients – I’m very hurt. If you cannot get 20 clients, you don’t have food to eat. They come to hit you, shock you, fight you. They just make you scared. If you’re scared, you do anything. I know all of them. I know how much they are hurt.”
It is in one of AFESIP’s rehabilitation and training centres that Sina found her zest for life. The work Somaly Mam does has helped thousands of girls like Sina escape the sex trade, which enslaves some 40,000 women and children in Cambodia.
Fighting against the industry is a dangerous game and in Somaly Mam’s case, several attempts have been made to assassinate her.
But she remains resolute, asking the questions that need to be asked: “Who traffics women and infants? These are people with a lot of money. Who has a lot of money? The money that provides power. This is what should be looked at. There are things I can say and things I can not say. It is said in Cambodia that if you want to survive, you must be silent. If you are raped, beaten, you can not talk. If you want to survive – silence. I want to survive. Just for my life? I do not care. But you know, behind me, how many lives are there? “
Though Somaly admits there have been tough times, nothing could convince her to abandon those she calls her children.
She concluded: “Some time ago, there was no more money. Funds were cut. There was no more money at all. I said, you know, if I have to return to the brothels because I know of nothing else, to save my children I would do it. I would do it. I don’t want them back in brothels. I don’t want that.” She wept as she continued: “It’s too difficult for a child who is saved to return to a brothel. Even if she still manages to smile. It’s too much. If I have to suffer for them, I will and I still do.”