Somaly Mam: Cambodian sex slave-turned activist
Somaly Mam is so tired of being a victim.
The Cambodian sex slave-turned-anti trafficking activist is adamant that she does not want to recount her life story again and be haunted afresh by nightmares of her past.
The 42-year-old wears her hair long to her waist, refuses to get “fat and grey” and takes meticulous care of herself so that she can be a role model to girls everywhere.
“I need to love myself, I’m not a victim any more,” she declares, as she poses for pictures at the Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore, where she was a guest speaker at last week’s Nomura Asia Equity Forum.
The survivor is now squarely focused on the future lot of Cambodian women, which she feels she – once the lowest of the low as a “dark-skinned” sex slave from a “savage” minority tribe – now has the capacity to change at the highest levels.
Five years ago, she launched her eponymous foundation to raise funds and give sex trafficking victims a voice. Since then, she has been reforming their image from weak and powerless to courageous overcomers. She encourages them to teach classes and give talks to the police, military and magistrates on sex slavery.
Through radio shows and public talks, she lobbies for more sex education and gender equality, in a country where boys routinely have their first sexual encounter in brothels and girls are taught to feel ashamed of their bodies. She implores men to respect women, and see them not merely as toys or slaves, or chattel.
She also goes to the root of the problem by bringing small business to desperate mothers, to provide them with an alternative to selling their daughters into a life of vice for US$20 (S$25).
Today, it’s no longer easy to “buy a virgin” in Cambodia, she says triumphantly. In 2008, the Cambodian government finally introduced an anti-trafficking law criminalizing sexual exploitation, especially of minors, which resulted in police raids of red-light areas. But enforcement remains patchy. In this area, she thinks Singapore, with its strides in curtailing trafficking and strengths in “strict law enforcement”, can provide a “good, clean model” for Cambodia.
Although sex trafficking numbers have gone down – it is estimated that one in 40 girls born in Cambodia gets sold into sex slavery – she warns that the incidence of rape, especially by stepfathers or relatives known to the girl’s family, is on the rise.
Ever younger girls are being trafficked, as a growing number of Asian sex tourists to Cambodia – including Singaporean men – believe that sex with a virgin whitens the skin, bestows longer life and even cures Aids. “To be sure they are virgins, they are taking them as young as five,” she says.
Violence by pimps has escalated. Some women have an eye gouged out, are found chained to sewers, or given electric shocks to ensure compliance. She attributes this to the state of moral bankruptcy in Cambodia, after years of carpet bombing by the Americans, and the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.
It is dark and disturbing but her message to Singapore, in whose backyard this is happening, is: Don’t look away.
“Trafficking is not just in Cambodia; it’s around the world, everywhere. People think the girls wish to do it. I want everyone to know that no woman wants to be raped. We all want to have sex with men we love. Start to ask questions, talk and understand,” she beseeches in patchy English, her fifth language, after Khmer, French, Laotian and Thai.
Today, her proudest achievement is not the 7,000 girls her organization Afesip (a French acronym for Acting for Women in Distressing Situations) has rescued across Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand since 1996.
It’s a mother’s pride in her girls who graduated, got married, made good. Last year, with tears in her eyes, she sent off one of her charges to law school in Cambodia, relishing the irony of how she – like other prostitutes – once had many brushes with the law.
But she gets riled up when they decide to give up their careers after marriage. “Why do you stop? You get your own salary, you speak English, you’re travelling, and then just because one man asks you to stop, you stop. Keep working. Women have to live independently,” she upbraids them.
What also gets her goat, she says, are rogues pretending to be knights on white horses.
Some Caucasian men, after reading her autobiographical bestseller The Road Of Lost Innocence, first published in French in 2005, get inspired to “save” a girl. They “buy” a beautiful girl from the brothel, bed her, enjoy their holiday, then call Mam from the airport to collect her.
“I hate that,” she says heatedly. “What am I going to do with her? This woman, who has been with a foreigner with money, enjoyed great food, an iPhone, how can she stay in my center? In my center, the girls have no phone to use; we cannot feed them meat every day. These men, I want to kill.”
“If you want to save a girl, don’t save her and have sex with her. Provide skills, training, education; empower her.”
It takes five minutes to save a girl from forced prostitution but five to 10 years – and the patience “of a mother” – to “recover” her.
For the past 16 years, she has given the police tip-offs on sold or kidnapped girls in brothels, observed the raid, held their hands as they gave their statements, then taken them back to the centre to train them in sewing or hairdressing and begin the long process of emotional healing.
Some call their mother, go home and end up back in the brothels. “You have to look after them as your own kid, not as a victim, and go back to the brothel to get them every single time,” she recounts, adding she has done this four times for one girl.
Some of these mothers who sold their own flesh go on to lodge complaints with human rights groups when their daughters are in her shelter, claiming they have been denied access. She is aware this adds to the controversy already swirling over her hardline stance that all sex workers are “victims”, regardless of consent, in poverty-stricken Cambodia.
In a rehearsed spiel, she maintains she is focused on “sex abuse and sex trafficking” and is “not against sex workers”. If a girl over 20 has decided to prostitute herself for a living, she says her role will be to “care for her, empower her, give her more opportunities”. “If she decides to leave, I’m there to help her,” she says.
Accusations have flown over how she ignored issues of consent and security by allowing New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kristof to live-tweet a brothel raid in November last year.
When asked about this, her defense is that Kristof is “like a brother” to her. She draws attention instead to how the subject of his tweets – a young Vietnamese girl who was trafficked to Cambodia – was rescued to safety on the day of her 14th birthday.
“The most important thing is to see her laughing again,” she says with finality.
Whenever challenged, she closes the subject with: “No one is perfect and I’m not perfect too.”
She seems to have no inkling of how big her staff strength is, or how much they operate on. She adds disarmingly that her management style is plain bad. “I don’t know how to do it at all. I’m bad at management and finance… I tell my staff I’m the worst and they tell me the same too.”
Though abandoned as a toddler, growing up an orphan among the minority Phnong tribe in Cambodia’s mountainous Mondulkiri province were her happiest days. “There was no beating,” she says.
She foraged for her own food in the forest and slept among the trees till age 10, when an elderly man from the city “adopted” her, promising to find her birth parents. “Grandfather”, as she called him, beat her into submission, then sold her off several times – first her virginity to a Chinese merchant at age 12, in marriage to a violent soldier at 14, and finally to a Phnom Penh brothel at 16.
She ran away, only to be gang-raped by the police, and had maggots poured down her throat upon her return. She worked off her debt till “Grandfather” died, then took up with a series of Caucasian clients because they did not beat her, “paid more” and took her to “nicer places”.
At 20, she met Pierre Legros, a French aid agency worker who spoke perfect Khmer and was “brilliant”, if a bit “rough” around the edges. She opened a bar with him, married him and followed him to France three years later. In Paris, she was confronted with a cold, distant land and a hostile mother-in-law (“Today, I understand her; no one wants her son to marry a prostitute,” she confides).
Barely 18 months later, in 1994, they returned to Cambodia when he landed a job with medical humanitarian agency Medecins Sans Frontieres. She pretended to be a nurse and infiltrated Cambodia’s brothels handing out condoms. Then she started helping girls held against their will to flee.
Their home was crowded with 20 of them at one point. That was how Afesip started its first shelter in 1996, as she gave birth to their first child. They had a second child in 2002, but parted ways in 2004. Mam, who has “never known what love is”, says in her book: “It is difficult for me not to blame all men for the actions of a few.”
There were warnings – delivered at gun point – by brothel owners. In 2006, she told journalists that her then 14-year-old adopted daughter Ning was kidnapped and raped in retaliation for her activism.
But two months ago, her account was refuted by former husband Legros, a former Afesip director. He called it a “marketing” ploy for her foundation and told The Cambodian Daily that the girl had just run away with her boyfriend. Likewise, Cambodia’s anti-trafficking police say they did not hear of any kidnapping.
Asked how Ning is doing now, Mam clams up, sighing heavily that there is “big trouble”.
These frequent attacks no longer faze her. The hardest part, she lets on, is steeling herself to enter the dank, dirty brothel alleys, talking to victims about wounds which mirror hers.
There, the engulfing stench of “sperm and sweat” makes her gag. She has drawers full of perfumes and potions, which she douses herself in, but she feels she can never ever exorcise the stench of her past.
The divorcee, who holds French and Cambodian citizenship, spends about a third of her time travelling to raise funds but can stay away from Phnom Penh no more than 10 days at a time – or else the nightmares return.
The Buddhist, who refuses to believe it is her “karma” to suffer for past misdeeds, says she has embraced forgiveness and now meditates twice a day.
If she could give her children three pointers about life, what would they be?
She thinks for a while, then says: “Be happy for what you are. Life is short, continue to help and share with everyone. Life is love and love has no conditions.”