Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"The Road of Lost Innocence"

"In 1986, when I was sold to a brothel as a prostitute, I was about sixteen years old. Today there are many far younger prostitutes in Cambodia. There are virgins for sale in every large town, and to ensure their virginity, the girls are sometimes as young as five or six," writes Somaly Mam on the dedication page for her book The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine. In the book, originally published in French in 2005, Mam recounts her experiences as a sex trafficking victim, survivor, and eventually as a rescuer for others in the same situation.

Mam was born in 1970 or 1971 during a time of great upheaval in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge political party came into power and ruled from 1975-1979; due to executions, starvation, and forced labor, 2 million Cambodians died during this time. As Mam notes, this time of incredible hardship and violence shaped and continues to shape life in Cambodia. People are especially vulnerable to exploitation, and Mam suggests that there is a legacy of extreme violence, particularly towards women and girls. Throughout the book, Mam contextualizes her experiences and the sex-trade in general in the larger socio-political context of Cambodia.

Mam was left as an orphan when she was a young girl. After living on her own and scrambling for food and shelter, a man calling himself her grandfather took her to a city, where he abused her and sold her out as a domestic slave. Eventually he sold her to a brothel as a sex slave. After experiencing years of abuse, she gained her freedom after the death of her "grandfather." Because she lacked job skills, education, and any support network, she stayed in the commercial sex industry until she eventually married a Frenchman who was working on foreign aid projects in Cambodia. Eventually they moved to France for a few years, where Mam gained work experience and learned French.

Upon her return to Cambodia, she started working on behalf of other girls and young women who were forced into commercial sex work, either by their parents who sold them to pay a debt or because they were kidnapped from their families for use as sex slaves. At first she mainly provided condoms and other services to the girls and women. Later, she started working to rescue them from the situations, and she opened a shelter. Eventually, Mam opened several shelters, ranging from emergency shelters to more permanent educational facilities for survivors.

In the book, Mam details the many challenges she has faced in her work, particularly relating to lack of consistent funding and police corruption. Despite these many difficulties, Mam's work has helped countless girls and women, many who had no other chance of getting out of their situations. Mam has received numerous honors for her heroic efforts, including being named one of the 100 Most Influential People by Time Magazine in 2009, which the Human Trafficking Project reported on earlier this year.

During her childhood and young-adult years, Mam endured horrific physical and sexual violence, which she graphically describes in the book. Mam notes, however, that the situation in Cambodia has only worsened. According to Mam "the brothels have grown larger and more violent. We find women chained to sewers. Girls come to us beaten half to death. They are so young. Increasingly we see that the meebons have addicted them to drugs so they won't even try to escape. When I was young we were terrorized with snakes and heavy fists, but these girls suffer a more brutal sort of torture. They have marks that are worse than anything I have ever endured" (166).

Looking back on her work, Mam writes, "I don't feel like I can change the world. I don't even try. I only want to change this small life that I see standing in front of me, which is suffering. I want to change this small real thing that is the destiny of one little girl. And then another, and another, because if I didn't, I wouldn't be able to live with myself or sleep at night" (129). Mam's words are especially powerful in light of the prevalence of sex trafficking in Cambodia. The Future Group, a Canadian NGO, reported in 2005 that at least 1 in 40 girls born in Cambodia will be sold into sex slavery.

Throughout the book, Mam emphasizes the need for people to get involved to work to end modern-day slavery. The Somaly Mam Foundation website lists a number of ways to support her work in Cambodia, including volunteering, interning, volunteering in Cambodia, donating, selling bracelets made by survivors, and hosting an awareness fundraiser. While the entire book is a pressing call to action, one passage in particular highlights the urgency of anti-trafficking work: "It's still happening, today, tonight. Imagine how many girls have been raped and hit since you started to read this book. My story doesn't matter, except that it stands for their story too, and their stories are why I don't sleep at night. They haunt me" (61).

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