Written by Jan Jaben-Eilon Tuesday, October 04 2011
Snapshot: Somaly Mam, survivor, advocate, author
Somaly Mam was born to a poor, tribal minority family in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia. With limited options and living in unimaginable despair, her family often resorted to desperate means to survive. This confluence of dire circumstances led to the unspeakable horrors that would mark Mam's early years. She was sold into sexual slavery by a man who posed as her grandfather. Forced to work in a brothel along with other children, Mam was brutally tortured and raped on a daily basis. One night, she was made to watch as her best friend was viciously murdered.
Fearing she would meet that same fate, she heroically escaped her captors and set about building a new life for herself. She vowed never to forget those left behind and has since dedicated her life to saving victims and empowering survivors. More than 2 million women and children are sold into slavery each year. With the launch of The Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF) in 2007, Mam established a funding vehicle to support anti-trafficking organizations and to provide victims and survivors with a platform from which their voices can be heard around the world. Mam wrote a book, The Road to Innocence, describing her life.
Womenetics: How big a criminal operation is human trafficking compared to, say, the drug trade?
Somaly Mam: I recognize that organized crime is heavily involved in human trafficking. And due to the low risk of prosecution and conviction and vast amounts of income generated by the sale of persons, human trafficking for sexual exploitation is becoming a larger and more complex problem of the 21st century, surpassing narcotics and drugs as the trade of choice among organized crime groups. Unlike drugs, the human body can be used over and over again, generating huge profits for traffickers.
Womenetics: You were sold into sex slavery as a young child. How many children are sex slaves now?
Mam: There are 80,000 to 100,000 commercial sex workers in Cambodia, approximately a third of those are younger than 18, and 58 percent reported that they were sold into prostitution. A countrywide survey conducted between 1995 and 2002 found 29 percent of direct female sex workers to be HIV positive. Therefore, the victims assisted by Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire (AFESIP) are highly likely to have been sold into prostitution and have a one in three chance of being underage as well as HIV positive.
Womenetics: Why do you think you were able to escape this slavery, when so many have not?
Mam: I never thought about escape from slavery because I felt my life was dead. Life inside the brothel is dark. One day, I saw my best friend killed in front of me. That day I wanted to run away and come back to kill them. Maybe the other girls felt the same way. Nobody wants to be a prostitute, but there is no choice.
Womenetics: In 1996, you established a Cambodian nongovernmental organization called AFESIP. What does that mean, why did you create the group, and what does it do?
Mam: AFESIP is an acronym from French. I created AFESIP with my ex-husband, who is French. At that time I could only speak French and could not speak English as I do now. It does not have any special meaning except to me and the girls, who are in need of special protection. Once I was working with one health organization in the southeast provinces of Cambodia. I was a social worker, and my daily activities were to provide education on AIDS prevention to women and girls in brothels and on how to use condoms properly to protect themselves from AIDS infection. Also I taught them how to encourage their clients/buyers of prostitution to use condoms and referred them for sexually transmitted disease consultation and treatment.
I had built up close relationships with the girls and women, so they confided in me, and one day they told me that I could not treat them or cure them of sexually transmitted diseases because all of their clients were unwilling to use condoms. The clients did not believe there was AIDS, and the women/girls were raped and were psychologically and physically abused. They said if I wanted to help them, I needed to find them a safe place and skills training for work so that one day they could get a good paid job.
They said none of them would fall into the sex trade if there were choices for them to escape. Since then I committed myself to do something to help them because no one understands those girls’ situation better than me with the experience I went through. I started to provide a safe place for them in my house and made contacts with my friends, asking them to help me. A few of them helped me develop documents, and I used my money to care for them. Finally, in early 1997, my dream became true and I was able to rent a wooden house that I could operate as a shelter in Phnom Penh.
Since its inception in 1996, AFESIP provides comprehensive services to sex-trafficking victims and has established more shelters and a powerful network of domestic and international partners.
Womenetics: In 2007, you launched The Somaly Mam Foundation, a funding vehicle to support anti-trafficking organizations and to provide victims and survivors with a platform from which their voices can be heard around the world. How do you accomplish those goals?
Mam: I strongly believe that awareness of the trafficking problem must be widespread and the cooperation and collaboration among anti-trafficking organizations has to be strengthened. Reinforcement of its relationships with local and international organizations has been and will continue to be a priority for me. I also work at the institutional level seeking to inform and engage the Cambodian government and policymakers on trafficking issues and raising awareness on a global scale.
The survivors’ voices need to be heard as they are very powerful messages to law enforcement and law and policymakers because most governments speak on behalf of victims and survivors, but they do not know what those women/girls need exactly. If they do not know what their needs are, how can they develop an appropriate strategy and assist them in a righteous way? Therefore we need to change our approach to working with victims and survivors of human trafficking. We need to listen for what they need because they have the right to protection, freedom of expression, and to participate in every step of developing projects. As the service users, they are a mirror that reflects on us as service providers so that we can offer them services that work best for them.
Womenetics: Your foundation has a three-step approach: action, advocacy, and awareness, and your programs rest on the collective voice of survivors of sex trafficking. But how does this really help children escape from this slavery and make new lives for themselves?
Mam: Action is to provide holistic care approaches and necessities to survivors such as legal protection through rescuing operations of the victims of sex trafficking, safe accommodation, physical and psychological health care, vocational skills training, education, repatriation, reintegration into the community at large with a sustainable manner of financial independence, and follow-up for up to three years.
Advocacy and awareness are designed to make sure the voices of victims and survivors are heard globally, with recommendations to governments, policymakers, and law enforcement so that they can develop adaptively relevant programs, policies, and legal tools to prevent and protect victims of sex trafficking and to bring traffickers to justice.
Womenetics: How much money was required to get your foundation off the ground, and how large is your annual operating budget?
Mam: SMF’s annual budget is $4.2 million and AFESIP-Cambodia is about $1 million.
Womenetics: On a daily basis, what are your primary responsibilities?
Mam: Building relationships and communication with donors, governments, policymakers, anti-trafficking organizations, but what I like the most is field work and to be with my girls (survivors at centers), reintegrate girls into the communities, and visit women and girls in sex sectors.
Womenetics: Who has most influenced you in your life?
Mam: They are my girls and staffs. They are my strength. They encourage and motivate me, and they help me make my dream come true.
Womenetics: How can Womenetics’ readers help?
Mam: My target audience is the female population. In terms of gender equity in Cambodia, females are treated worse than males in all circumstances even in politics, social venues, economic development, and education. That is why I am empowering female victims to be survivors and empowering survivors to be the solution as much as possible. At AFESIP, we employ trafficking survivors to work in different programs such as caregivers in shelters, trainers, social workers, and peer-educators in outreach of AIDS prevention programs and leaders in each shelter.
Therefore, Womenetics’ readers can help us empower females to keep them, their family members, and friends free from sex trafficking and other forms of human right violations/abuses. They can also support the work of anti-trafficking organizations to eliminate discrimination against women/sex trafficking survivors, and give warmth and love to victims and survivors because love has no condition and it means a lot to them. Love is a part of the psychological/mental support they need as a result of their trauma, to rebuild their self-esteem and confidence.
Womenetics: Tell me about the book you wrote, The Road to Innocence.
Mam: My work encouraged me to write this book and to share my life experiences as well as the other victims’ lives so that the world could hear what happens in the world they live in. If they don’t ignore the problem, they can actually help to solve it. My main purpose of writing this book is to draw the world’s attention to sex trafficking and other forms of human rights violations. The developed (rich) countries have to do something to help the developing (poor) countries.
Over 15 years of my work in AFESIP, I have faced many problems, particularly when I just started my AFESIP organization. I had no funds; people did not understand what human trafficking is. There was corruption in law enforcement. Sometimes my staff worked without salaries. There was no support locally and internationally; and my life was threatened. My parents’ house was burned. My staff and I had to be evacuated to neighboring countries for our safety. For all of these reasons, I decided to write this book. I did not know whether I would be killed one day because of my work, and I did not want my AFESIP organization to die with me. If I die, because of this book there will be someone who can help my AFESIP survive and assist other victims.
Womenetics: Your life, from childhood, has been difficult. Your work is not easy. How do you relax and clear your mind?
Mam: Trauma is one of the most difficult and complicated things to recover from. After such severe trauma, physical injury can easily be recovered from, but psychological damage follows you for almost a whole life. I work hard and keep myself busy and happy with what I am doing. Once I see my girls smile, laugh, have a good family, have their childhoods, and they can go to schools, which I did not, then I am happy.
Once I am happy, my mind can relax. As I said above, what I like is field work. Sometimes I think that it is unfair to my children because I do not have much time for them. I travel abroad a lot, and I do not have any annual leave or vacation from work.
Jan Jaben-Eilon was a founding staff writer of the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Since then, she has been the international editor of Advertising Age magazine and has written for such publications as The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Washington Journalism Review, and Consumer Reports. She is the author of soon-to-be-published (There is) Life After Cancer. Jan and her husband have homes in Atlanta and Jerusalem.