stolen innocence

Linked with Thierry Falise – Belgium & Thailand.

Saturday, November 19, 2005, The Standard – Driven by her own nightmare experiences, a former child prostitute is dedicated to rescuing Cambodia’s young sex slaves from the same horrors. Words and pictures: Thierry Falise.

C han Ry is a picture of innocence. The eight-year-old Cambodian, with plaits of jet-black hair, appears completely absorbed as she works on a wooden loom. Her tiny hands move nimbly as she pushes a shuttle through a tangle of white and blue threads. In the same room, another group of girls play. Others are cooking, preparing rice and chicken for lunch. Above them, on the first floor of a large house sitting beside a ricefield in Kompong Cham province, two hours north of Phnom Penh, a dozen older girls, still just teenagers, learn the basics of Khmer traditional dance. Chan Ry is one of the survivors of an ongoing 21st century nightmare. For more than a year she was kept as a sex slave in a Phnom Penh brothel. At the age of six, she was sold by her mother to a woman who said the child would get a “good” job in the capital.

Somaly Mam, 34, knows the story only too well. A former child prostitute herself, she is the author of a book describing her own nightmare and is the founder of an NGO called AFESIP – the French acronym for Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire (Acting for Women in Precarious Circumstances), which provides shelter, education and professional training to children and young women who have fallen prey to prostitution. “Those pigs like them as young as possible,” sna
rls Somaly, showing her contempt for the trade in young flesh. “Some of them will pay a lot of money for a virgin.” At AFESIP’s Kompong Cham center, about 30 girls, all younger than 14, are trying to rebuild their lives. With each passing day, the center helps them to push their trauma a little deeper into the past. Ong Vanny still remembers the day her life was blown apart at the age of 16. “I was living in a village and my aunt took me to Phnom Penh. She told me I was to work as a maid in a beautiful house for a good salary.”

The story is typical. The promise of a fairytale job in the big city evaporated as soon as Ong Vanny arrived. “My aunt left me with a woman, a friend of hers, and told me to wait because she had to go to the market,” she remembers. She was still waiting 2 days later. On the third day, her new employer tried to force her to have sex with a man she had never met. When she refused, her captors beat her with an electric cable. She was deprived of food and not allowed to wash. The torture and deprivation, she was told, would last for as long as she refused to do as she was told. It wasn’t long before Ong Vanny caved in. She was soon having forced sex with an average of eight customers a day. There were few material rewards for her suffering. Of the 5,000 riels (HK$9.50) paid by each customer, she received only a few cents. As a somber reminder, her customers left her infected with HIV. Worse still, Ong Vanny was told by her captors that she was now in debt. “They told me I could leave whenever I wanted, but that I would have to pay US$150 [HK$1,170] plus the interest,” she recalls. She had been sold. The debt was supposed to be the cost of her freedom – but it was an amount she would never be able to pay.

According to the Cambodian Ministry of Women’s Affairs, there are about 100,000 prostitutes in Cambodia. Forty percent of them are under 16 years old, 70 percent are forced into prostitution and 64 percent are HIV-positive. The tragedy of these child sex slaves is played out far from the comparatively glitzy brothels and nightclubs frequented by foreign tourists, expats and rich locals. They inhabit the dingy back alleys of the city, selling their bodies for a pittance. In many ways, this ongoing nightmare is just one more side-effect of Cambodia’s violent history, marked by 30 years of war and social disintegration. In 1992, a massive influx of United Nations peacekeepers was supposed to have brought hope and brokered peace. But while they may have helped put a stop to Cambodia’s civil war, they also helped fuel an explosion of prostitution as thousands of cash-laden UN troops went looking for cheap sex. A variety of nonprofit organizations, Cambodian and foreign, have taken up the cause of fighting child prostitution in Cambodia, among which AFESIP is probably the best known and most successful.

Somaly, who was born in Cambodia’s remote northeast, needs little motivating. She is driven by the horror of her own experiences. “When I was 14, my step- grandfather forced me to marry,” she recounts. In the late 1980s, her husband sold her to a Phnom Penh brothel. “I was one of the eldest at that place. There were a lot of very young girls. We were treated worse than dogs.” Her good fortune, if it can be called that, was that she was tall, slim and dark-skinned, natural legacies of her rural and ethnic roots. While her looks might have been considered exotic to Western eyes, her Khmer and Chinese customers prefer young, plump, fair- skinned girls. She was a pariah. Disappointed by her catch, Somaly’s mamasan eventually let her go. From that point onwards, says Somaly, her mission was “to break the men’s heads and to harm them.” Traumatized by her experiences, she was driven to despair and contemplated suicide. “I did not believe in anything. Everything was trash,” she says.

Slowly, though, because of her “strong head and deep belief in Buddha,” she began to recover. “It’s hard to do that when you are a former prostitute without a dime,” she says. She found new meaning in life by dedicating herself to helping other girls with similar stories. Somaly has gradually built a life for herself. The first man she met who did not want to sleep with her was a Westerner, she recalls. “He told me I was beautiful and paid for a school for my organization. We became brother and sister.” She eventually met her future husband, Pierre Legros, a French expatriate who was working in Phnom Penh for a nonprofit organization. The couple have three children and, although now separated, still work together.

AFESIP was established in 1997 with a donation of a few thousand dollars from a Dutch NGO. The organization set up operations on premises loaned from a British trust. “The objective,” says Legros, who is AFESIP’s technical coordinator, “was to set up an action plan with Khmer staff who would take care of the girls from A to Z.”

Half a dozen departments were created, including a number of “commando units” which were responsible for infiltrating brothels. “With the help of a few non-corrupt policemen, we were able to launch raids against certain brothels and rescue girls who had been forced into prostitution,” says Legros. At AFESIP’s Phnom Penh shelter, the young women learn to read and write and are taught sewing, weaving, hair cutting or cooking. Those with AIDS receive additional medical attention and are reintegrated into society later under AFESIP’s supervision. In Phnom Penh and in other provinces AFESIP has opened restaurants, hairdressing salons and clothing factories to help women who wish to start afresh. To try to protect girls at risk from AIDS, its workers continuously visit brothels and slum areas to teach the girls and their potential customers the basics of safe sex. Not surprisingly, AFESIP has found few friends among the pimps and corrupt officials who run Cambodia’s profitable brothels.

Somaly has received a number of death threats. It is not unusual for her to have to flee her office suddenly. Once she fled to neighboring Laos, other times she has sought safe haven with friends or in hotels. Somaly’s war with Cambodia’s brothel industry was perhaps most intense in December last year. The day after an AFESIP team helped rescue 100 young women from a large Phnom Penh brothel, a group of heavily armed men raided her shelter and dragged the girls away. “Foreign embassies were offering to send me abroad” for protection, she says. “But how could I abandon my people and let them face these threats alone? I had to stay.”

Today, Somaly does not go out without a bodyguard. Her Phnom Penh home is surrounded by a high wall and guarded 24 hours a day. Since 1997, more than 800 children and young women have been rescued from brothels by AFESIP. “Ten to 20 percent return to the brothels,” she says. “There is nothing we can do about that.” In 1998, Somaly appeared on the global stage when she shared with six other women (including Graca Machel, Nelson Mandela’s wife) the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation, a kind of Nobel Peace Prize in the Hispanic world.

The award has since raised Somaly’s international profile and also helped AFESIP to secure financial aid from a variety of donors, including the European Union and the United Nations Children’s Fund. AFESIP now has offices in Thailand and Vietnam and employs more than 70 people. All of its workers are dedicated to ending the suffering of young prostitutes. Somaly Mam’s autobiography, Le Silence de l’Innocence (The Silence of the Innocence) was published in French recently by Anne Carriere. An English version is expected soon.

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