Herself a victim of abuse, Somaly Mam (pictured) has led Cambodia’s battle against child prostitution.
When Somaly Mam feels depressed, she drives to the countryside of Kampong Cham province—two bumpy, dusty hours from Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. Here, the woman who, is Cambodia’s symbol of the fight against child prostitution, feels at home.
In front of a long stilt house in Thlock Chhroy village, Somaly Mam stops. Immediately, a giggling bunch of girls rushes up to the delicate woman who almost disappears among ponytails and embracing hands. “My girls,” the 37-year-old, herself a mother of three, says lovingly.
The children’s gaiety belies trauma and turmoil. Little Mok Teta was just five when police found her in a brothel. Her face was so swollen from beatings that she could hardly open her eyes. Her body was covered with scars from stubbed-out cigarettes. In her head was a hole: somebody had hammered a nail in it.
|“In 1992, she received an opportunity.”|
At least she was not HIV positive like her friend Srey Maeh, who at the same age almost was raped to death by her father, uncle and neighbours, before she was rescued by social workers.
Such tortured children don’t prefer to be with adults, including psychologists. They are aggressive and shut themselves off. Nevertheless, Teta and Maeh now go to school and are able to socialise.
Together with 32 other abused girls from age eight to 16, they found a home in the shelter of the non-governmental organisation, Acting for Women in Distressing Situations (AFESIP), which Somaly co-founded. Here, they can share their suffering without words: Somaly understands them by just taking them in her arms. She has experienced their story herself.
Somaly never met her real parents. Born in the mountain region of Mondulkiri, she lived with people of her tribe, the Phnong. When she was 10, she was sold to a travelling trader, whom she called grandfather. She had to cook and clean for him. If he was drunk, he would beat her brutally.
When Somaly was 14, the ‘grandfather’ forced her to marry a soldier, who beat and raped her. When the husband didn’t return from battle, the grandfather sold her to a brothel in Phnom Penh. She was 16. She then spent six tormenting years in different brothels, where she and other girls were broken physically and spiritually through beatings and other abuse.
“Sometimes I ask myself why I never ran away,” Somaly says. “But in our society, abuse is normal. People expect the younger to sacrifice themselves for the elders. Since they bore and fed us, we must obey and be grateful for the rest of our lives.”
However, when a pimp shot a friend in front of her eyes—for refusing to sleep with a client—Somaly decided to do something against forced prostitution in her country.
In 1992, she received an opportunity.
At a party, she met the man who would later become her husband and the father of her children, the Frenchman Pierre Legros (with whom she recently separated). Together they opened a bistro, which enabled her to finally quit prostitution.
In 1996, she and Legros founded AFESIP. A year later, they opened a shelter for prostitutes in Phnom Penh. Today, AFESIP runs three shelters in Cambodia and offices in Thailand, Laos and Viet Nam, and employs more than 300 people. The organisation has rescued almost 4,000 women and offers such victims psychological and medical treatment and vocational training.
For her struggle against child prostitution, she was conferred upon the Prince of Asturias Award in 1998 and has since then received support from Spanish royalty. In 2006, she was named Glamour’s Woman of the Year which facilitated her entry into the United States, where with much pomp the Somaly Foundation was founded last November to raise donations for AFESIP.
“AFESIP is my life,” Somaly says. “The girls in the shelters break my heart. I try to give them love and warmth, like in a real family. And they give me the same back. That’s where I find my strength to continue.” (By CHRISTINA SCHOTT In Phnom Penh/ The Jakarta Post/ AsiaNews)