Somaly Mam’s crusade against sex trafficking – As seen in OPEN the Book 61.
Cambodia: a country of religious monuments and majestic temples that entices the spiritually-orientated to recharge their batteries. Travellers in search of a complete change of scene are wowed by beaches to die for and the opportunity to go hiking in equatorial forests. However, behind this glitzy and glamorous facade lurks a reality that is far more sombre in nature.
Trips combining religion, beaches and adventure – a very popular trio over the past few years – have lured travellers to explore this former corner of Indochina. However, the country’s citizens lead lives that are a million miles from a fairy tale. Most Cambodians live in dire poverty and have no access to education. This reality is the upshot of past events: in the Seventies the country was in the hands of the Communist Khmer Rouge regime that led to the quasi-destruction of culture and society. The population became impoverished and the country, in development deficit once more in 2016, suffered a major blow. It’s this state of affairs that saw the growth of a human trafficking network or the exploitation of individuals, in whatever form that may take. Women and children have been particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking in this misogynist environment. As these practices were established under a dictatorial regime, the recruitment of children and young girls became fairly commonplace as families saw no other way out of the poverty trap. In other words, the socio-political situation in Cambodia drove children and young girls to prostitution. These girls are aged between 4 and 25 years old. Most of the time they are indoctrinated and comply for monetary reasons or because they feel threatened in some way. In any event they don’t have a choice in the matter. Until one of their kin stepped up and made a difference… Somaly, an activist with a big heart would use what happened in her personal life to fight for change. Sold, beaten, raped, she lived in fear for several years, naked and confined in a room in a brothel with other girls. Unimaginable physical and psychological violence that I find difficult to write down. But then one day a client rescued her from her living hell and whisked her off to Europe. And so her crusade began: she returned to Cambodia fuelled by the desire to free other victims from their misery. She rooted them out one by one, trying to persuade them to go with her. Not an easy task as these girls were mistrustful of people. It wasn’t too long before Somaly needed more space to accommodate them all so she opened a refuge centre. It was at that time in 1996 that she launched the AFESIP organisation (Action for Women in Distressing Situations): a non-profit organisation that provides sanctuary and psychological help to victims of sexual slavery to enable them to be reintegrated in society. A crusade that would gain the backing of a clutch of stars as well as national and international organisations. Of particular note is the Swiss based Solyna foundation, working hand in hand with AFESIP and raising funds, all of which benefit the latter. Bewildered and cagey girls are looked after in a number of centres currently operating in Cambodia. The most difficult thing is to make them feel safe so that they become more trustful of others and have faith in themselves. The reintegration programme also provides a framework to help them to be financially independent when they leave the refuge for optimum rehabilitation. Somaly Mam, the lady with the radiant smile, is all heart. She tends to focus her work in the brothels, trying to persuade the young girls to leave. She also spends time publicising her cause and raising funds. She came along one afternoon, accompanied by Sina (a former victim and now her right hand woman) and talented American actress and firm AFESIP supporter AnnaLynne McCord, to share her point of view, richness of spirit and love of life with Open magazine. AnnaLynne kicked off the conversation with a beaming smile. She said that in her opinion the future of Cambodia lay in the hands of its young people, who now have the opportunity to become more clued-up and to take action. They have to be aware of this bane on society and what needs to be done to put an end the practice of sex trafficking that has been going on for decades. Somaly went on to explain what she does in the centres. The girls, who are completely lost, need a safe refuge when they are finally coaxed out of forced prostitution: « It’s crucial for them to have a compassionate person around, so they feel the love of family. And I’m there to be their ‘heart’ mum, so to speak. » She continues to say that having been mistreated in a totally corrupt environment, the girls no longer trust anyone. To protect themselves they tend to lie and not divulge any real information. Often they invent stories about their pasts. Somaly is only too familiar with this process, due to her own experience. So she establishes a relationship of trust with the survivors. She believes them. Even when she knows that they are lying, she believes them and loves them. Her only objective is to make them feel safe. She knows that once they have relaxed a bit and they start to trust her, they will then reveal the truth off their own bat to someone in the organisation. And when that happens, Somaly remains as open and non-judgemental as ever, so that the girls find healing and feel comforted in an environment of understanding and trust. She simply says to them «It doesn’t matter. I believe you and I love you ». Just like Somaly, girls that do well afterwards often feel compelled to help other sex trafficking victims to escape. According to Somaly, this is a way of healing psychologically, regaining self-confidence whilst doing something worthwhile, feeling a sense of purpose and reaching out to someone just as someone reached out to them: « You know, helping others is helping oneself ». Somaly Mam is an icon in the struggle for human rights. Occasionally controversial for feeble reasons, she will stop at nothing in her crusade to eradicate sex trafficking in Cambodia and save these girls, her girls. With her big, openhearted personality, she lives to restore joy and trust to souls battered by what they have been forced to do. Goodness personified, a light in the darkness. The question that burns on my tongue is how to put an end to sex slavery once and for all, which is the ultimate objective of the AFESIP and allied organisations. Because as in all business transactions, it’s a question of supply and demand, and these children and young girls are the victims of the demand. It seems important to emphasise the issue of forced prostitution in this situation. According to Chris Wolf, the President of Solyna, it is crucial to work on preventative measures in Western Europe as well as to collaborate directly with the Cambodian government and legal systems. Both approaches are necessary in addition to the care provided by the refuges. The good news is that everyone has the chance to talk about it to others so that people are aware of the problem and can participate in active preventative measures. What’s more, Solyna’s official fund-raising dinners will be taking place on Saturday the 28th May 2016 at Lausanne Palace and 3rd June at Les Trois Couronnes in Vevey, attended by AnnaLynne McCord and Somaly Mam. Evening events that will hopefully raise even more cash to free these poor girls from their predicament and take good care of them.
Somaly Mam: a mother figure for every sex trafficking victim. A quick glance heavenwards and that was it, she’d made up her mind. Driven by a firm belief that nothing whatsoever would get in her way. Giving herself totally to her cause, a powerful force of nature who radiates unconditional happiness and joy. And no judgement made when she sees these crushed, forsaken women, simply the words: « It doesn’t matter. I believe you and I love you ».
Camille Viennet for Open The Book – Subscription: http://openmag.ch/subscribe.php