I work for a Cambodian woman and former sex slave named Somaly Mam. She doesn’t know her real name, or her birthday: she was sold at age 12 and suffered nearly a decade of rape and abuse in the brothels of Phnom Penh. But Somaly states in her memoir that her own story is not important—she is simply giving a voice to the voiceless, to help others to truly understand the depth of this atrocity.
And she’s partly right: Somaly’s experience is not unique. There are an estimated 30 million slaves in the world today, with 2 million women and children sold into the sex trade each year, and 100,000 underage victims within US borders. What sets her story apart is her course of action after escaping from the brothel, beginning with the rescue of just one girl, and then a few more. To date, Somaly estimates that she has assisted over 4,000 women and children in Cambodia alone, and her non-governmental organization AFESIP (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire), founded in 1996, has become the largest shelter network in Southeast Asia.
AFESIP’s holistic approach ensures that victims not only escape the brothels but have the emotional and economic strength to face the future with hope. Services include outreach and rescue, counseling and medical care, skills training and basic education, and reintegration support to help a woman find work or start her own business.
This is no quick fix. In Somaly’s words, it takes five minutes to save a girl from the brothel, but five years, or longer, to recover her. Each center has created a nurturing, family-like environment to help its 70 residents overcome challenges like mistrust, medical complications, PTSD and illiteracy.
But Somaly has built more than a shelter network: she has amassed a following as the face of the anti-trafficking movement, fearlessly speaking out on behalf of victims and against traffickers, “johns” and corrupt officials. She is smart, charismatic, and beautiful. She rejects titles of “heroine” or “global leader” but deserves both.
In 2007, 24-year-old Americans Nic Lumpp and Jared Greenberg flew to Cambodia to see the centers and offer to help in any way they could. With Somaly, they co-founded the Somaly Mam Foundation to raise funds and awareness for her work, tackle the macro issue by leveraging US resources and online networks, and develop a platform for a survivor voice in the anti-trafficking movement.
We cannot solve sex slavery without empowering victims to be survivors, and empowering survivors to be a part of the solution. To that effect, SMF’s Voices For Change (VFC) leaders work alongside the shelter team in rescues, counseling and recovery, which has led to both higher retention rates in the shelters and in the number of women who initially decide to accept services. Leaders lend a survivor perspective and answer questions on a regional anti-trafficking radio show, conduct trainings for law enforcement agents and judges to better recognize and address trafficking cases, and last year led Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a tour through one of AFESIP’s centers.
Both Somaly’s life and the inaugural years of the VFC program have modeled the potential domino effect from every victim saved. A girl may be only one, but as a survivor she has potential to help many more, and with each life saved the impact spreads exponentially. VFC leader Sopeap was instrumental in the rescue of 30 women last year, her own experiences granting her the ability to navigate delicate situations and assuage the fears of the most traumatized and skeptical victims. Others are preparing for careers in law, PR, economics and business, and in doing so, preparing to become the next generation of activists and agents of change.
But rescue and recovery is only part of eradication of slavery, and the State Department outlines three P’s—Prevention, Protection, and Prosecution—as the fundamental framework for diplomatic, economic, political, legal, and cultural contexts. In real terms, this means targeting the “johns” or clients, passing and enforcing victim-protection laws, and fostering partnerships across borders and economic strata. I would add a fourth fundamental: People. We must mobilize a critical mass of individuals worldwide to merge their compassion with real action. Here are a few ways to begin:
1. Connect. Like SMF on Facebook and follow @SomalyMam on Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube. Repost/reblog/retweet. Visit www.somaly.org, join the mailing list, and learn about PROJECT FUTURES global, our network of passionate volunteers who are using what they know and who they know to raise awareness and funds for SMF in their communities.
2. Share. As William Wilberforce once said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.” Pass along articles, stories, posts, or Somaly’s memoir, Road of Lost Innocence, to friends and family.
3. Support. Just $10 could provide a week’s worth of food for a girl in the center, and a $50 monthly recurring donation supports these needs year-round. Alternatively, buy a $15 survivor-made Akun (“thank you”) bracelet and wear it as a conversation-starter.
We cannot reach our full potential as a global community until we share the responsibility of eradication, and achieve the vision of a world where women and children are safe from slavery. Learn more and support our work at www.somaly.org.
(Statistics are from Not For Sale, Polaris Project, US State Department’s TIP Report.)
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