World leaders are parading through New York this week for a United Nations General Assembly reviewing their (lack of) progress in fighting global poverty. That’s urgent and necessary, but what they aren’t talking enough about is one of the grimmest of all manifestations of poverty — sex trafficking.
This is widely acknowledged to be the 21st-century version of slavery, but governments accept it partly because it seems to defy solution. Prostitution is said to be the oldest profession. It exists in all countries, and if some teenage girls are imprisoned in brothels until they die of AIDS, that is seen as tragic but inevitable.
The perfect counterpoint to that fatalism is Somaly Mam, one of the bravest and boldest of those foreign visitors pouring into New York City this month. Somaly is a Cambodian who as a young teenager was sold to the brothels herself and now runs an organization that extricates girls from forced prostitution.
Now Somaly has published her inspiring memoir, “The Road of Lost Innocence,” in the United States, and it offers some lessons for tackling the broader problem.
In the past when I’ve seen Somaly and her team in Cambodia, I frankly didn’t figure that she would survive this long. Gangsters who run the brothels have held a gun to her head, and seeing that they could not intimidate Somaly with their threats, they found another way to hurt her: They kidnapped and brutalized her 14-year-old daughter.
Three years ago, I wrote from Cambodia about a raid Somaly organized on the Chai Hour II brothel where more than 200 girls had been imprisoned. Girls rescued from the brothel were taken to Somaly’s shelter, but the next day gangsters raided the shelter, kidnapped the girls and took them right back to the brothel.
Yet Somaly continued her fight, and, with the help of many others, she has registered real progress. Today, she says, the Chai Hour II brothel is shuttered. In large part, so is the Svay Pak brothel area where 12-year-old girls were openly for sale on my first visit.
“If you want to buy a virgin, it’s not easy now,” notes Somaly, speaking in English — her fifth language.
Somaly’s shelters — where the youngest girl rescued is 4 years old — provide an education and job skills. More important, Somaly applies public and international pressure to push the police to crack down on the worst brothels, and takes brothel owners to court. The idea is to undermine the sex-trafficking business model.
In her book, Somaly recounts how she grew up as an orphan and was “adopted” by a man who sold her to a brothel. Once when Somaly ran away, the police gang-raped her. Then her owner, on recovering his “property,” not only beat and humiliated her but tied her down naked and poured live maggots over her skin and in her mouth.
Yet even after that, Somaly occasionally defied him. Once two new girls, about 14 years old, were brought in to the brothel and left tied up. Somaly untied them and let them run away. For that, she was tortured with electric shocks.
As Cambodia opened up, Somaly began to get foreign clients, whom she vastly preferred because they didn’t beat her as well, and she began learning foreign languages. Eventually, a French aid worker named Pierre Legros and she got married, and together they started Afesip, a small organization to fight sex trafficking. They have since divorced, and Somaly works primarily through the Somaly Mam Foundation, set up by admiring Americans to finance her battle against trafficking in Cambodia. It’s a successful collaboration between American do-gooders with money and a Cambodian do-gooder with local street smarts.
The world’s worst trafficking is in Asia, but teenage runaways in the United States are also routinely brutalized by their pimps. If a white, middle-class blonde goes missing, the authorities issue an Amber Alert and cable TV goes berserk, but neither federal nor local authorities do nearly enough to go after pimps who savagely abuse troubled girls who don’t fit the “missing blonde” narrative. The system is broken.
A bill to strengthen federal anti-trafficking efforts within the U.S. was overwhelmingly passed by the House of Representatives, led by Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York. But crucial provisions to crack down on pimping are being blocked in the Senate in part by Senators Sam Brownback and Joe Biden, who consider the House provisions unnecessary and problematic. (Barack Obama gets it and says the right things about trafficking to the public, but apparently not to his running mate.)
With U.N. leaders this week focused on overcoming poverty, Somaly is a reminder that we needn’t acquiesce in the enslavement of girls, in this country or abroad. If we defeated slavery in the 19th century, we can beat it in the 21st century.