- Format: Hardcover, 208 pages
- On Sale: September 9, 2008
- Publisher : Random House
This summer when I was reading up in preparation for our trip to Cambodia I came across an article that described Phnom Penh as the "new Bangkok". At first I thought this meant that Cambodia had dethroned Bangkok to become the leading and cheapest place to buy designer knock-offs, but that wasn't what they meant. Turns out that Cambodia is now the premier destination for sex tourism in the South East of Asia, something that in the '80's, Bangkok (especially the "Patpong Area") was particularly well known. However, what it is even more disturbing is that Cambodia seems to have become some sort of a magnet for child molesters, at last count about 25 % of Cambodia's prostitutes were under-age.
Because there is such a lot of money to be made from this particular type of tourism and because a majority of Cambodians are so poor, Cambodian cities are flooded with girls who have either been sold into sex slavery by their parents or who have been kidnapped by sex traffickers (over a million young women and children are sold into slavery every year and a Canadian nonprofit estimates 1 in 40 girls born in Cambodia will be sold into sex slavery.). At $12 billion annually, the global slave trade has become the third most profitable criminal industry in the world, behind only narcotics and weapons!
One-third of Cambodia's prostitutes are under-age. Virgins are in particular demand by men with AIDS because of a legend that they can be cured by having sex with a virgin. Also, Chinese, Thai and Cambodian men believe that having sex with a virgin increases one's virility. To satisfy their demands, younger and younger girls are being kidnapped...some even as young as five years. Men also seek younger girls because they are deemed less likely to be infected with H.I.V virus, than the older girls.
Somaly Mam was one of those girls. When she was twelve her “grandfather” sold her into slavery. She was forced to work in a brothel where she faced hunger, punishment and sexual abuse on a daily basis. This continued for a few years, then one night, she watched a client murder her close friend and realized that if she didn't get out, her fate would be the same. Around that time a Swiss expat working for one of Cambodia's numerous NGO's came into her life and he gave her enough money to leave the brothel. Somaly held several different jobs for the next few years but her heart was always with the poor sex workers in Cambodia and she decided she had to go back and do something to help them.
So with a little backing from her French husband's contacts she started a non-governmental organization called “Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances.” which to date has saved over 4000 girls from sexual slavery and rehabilitated them into society. Somaly has been rewarded for her commitment to this cause with a slew of humanitarian awards.
Last month Random House published Somaly's memoir titled "The Road of Lost Innocence". The novel, written in French (Somaly's third language) and then translated into English could be the reason the prose is so neatly constructed and so matter-of-fact. The details are horrific (Buckets of live maggots dumped on her body and in her mouth, days of brutal beatings, violent gang rapes, burning with car batteries, tied in a dark room full of snakes. . .) but because they are presented in such an impersonal way, you almost get the sense that Somaly has distanced herself from that part of her life and perhaps she has. The only time you get carried up with her emotion is when she is talking about the girls she has saved and in the last chapter when she discusses how writing this book has made her relive her awful past. Another reason for the emotionally detached prose could be the Cambodian's reluctance to discuss personal matters...Cambodians are very private people and it could be that writing down the really sordid details of her life made Somaly uncomfortable. It seems plain to me that the main reason she wrote this memoir was to educate people on the plight of prostitution, especially child prostitution in Cambodia and to that effect she's done a fine job.
The Khmers or Cambodians have always been known to be very happy and peaceful people, so how did they learn to be so cruel? Somaly is of the opinion that three decades of bombing, genocide and starvation have led to her country being morally bankrupt. During the cruel reign of the Khmer Rouge people learned not to trust anyone and to only depend on themselves, as a result, they have become completely self-centered and don't feel much empathy for their neighbors or friends, much less someone who is from the lowest strata of society, like a prostitute.
If in the 19th-century our ancestors decided that slavery was a moral blot on humanity and rose up against it, why can't we do the same today??? Why do we acquiesce in 21st-century slavery, when 15-year-old girls are imprisoned in brothels and sentenced to death by AIDS? Come, let us together raise our voices against this terrible issue and join causes that are fighting it.
A portion of the proceeds of this book will be donated to the Somaly Mam Foundation.