Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam

Category: Biography & Autobiography - Personal Memoirs; Current Affairs; Social Science - Third World Development
  • Format: Hardcover, 208 pages
  • On Sale: September 9, 2008
  • Publisher : Random House
(translated from the French by Lisa Appignanesi)

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.



karmic said...

Thank you for this very relevant post about a truly gripping story. Most of us are aware of Thailand as a magnet for sex tourism but Cambodia?

I think the reasons you mentioned as to why the Cambodians known as a peaceful and happy people, have become so cruel are valid.
And times of peace what also contributes to this perhaps is also the rapid change in their society as the economy opens up? It has opened up for some but for most this is seemingly a way out. But they end up being victims and merchandise in a trade.

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
What you talk about is something mental health professionals have said is a mechanism that victims experiencing trauma often try as a way to cope.

Thank you too for raising awareness of an issue that does not get enough play at times in the media or in the public consciousness.

Anonymous said...

phew. one scary book, and tale. it is so distressing to read about it. i hope her work (and that of others) serves to help many more such women.

hellomelissa said...

it must have been difficult to get through some of these passages no matter how the prose was written. is the political unrest in thailand forcing the trade into cambodia? this is horrifying no matter where it takes place. we americans think we have it so bad with the economic woes, then we read about a plight like this one. how courageous the author is to try and save these girls!

The Pixy Princess said...

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.

I cannot even start to form a coherent sentance right now after reading that. Will be on the look out for this one for sure.

CG said...

Hi Lotus, I have nominated your blog for an award, I hope you will like it. Please check it out at: http://carrasdream.blogspot.com/2008/10/i-your-blog.html

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Sanjay!

Yes, I know, Thailand did have the dubious distinction of being the no. 1 destination for sex tourists in the region but I think the reason Cambodia has caught up is because their government is so much more lax, not to mention corrupt, and most sex tourists know they can get away with just about anything, even pedophilia if they know whose hands to grease.

However, I will say something...walking around Phnom Penh does not give you the same creepy feeling as walking around Bangkok used to do in the '90's. The trade is not as "in your face" as Thailand's used to be. But that was just my experience. I suppose if a white male were to walk down the roads in Phnom Penh he would have quite a different experience!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Apu!

I am hoping that more people read this book and spread the message. I know things seem pretty hopeless for the Cambodian girls in the face of poverty, corrupt governments and even parents who are in cahoots with the pimps, but we can try...a good start would be to read the book and become aware.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Melissa

The author is courageous indeed. She keeps saving these girls despite the many threats on her life and the lives of her children.

Yes, I think one of the reasons Cambodia is now the new Thailand is because the previous PM tried to clean up Thailand's sex industry and did quite a good job of it too.

Another reason, and one that Sanjay mentions in his comment, is the influx of tourists into Cambodia. I fear this situation is only going to get worse before it gets better/

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Pixy Princess

Yes, I know, it made my skin crawl! African males also tend to think along the same lines and that is one of the reasons why so many very young girls are getting AIDS in Africa/

Lotus Reads said...

Ok Carra, thanks so much!!!

The Unadorned said...

So, now I think I partly understand why there's so much talk about Cambodia's getting up from its slumber and embracing liberalisation! Really sordid it is to progress this way. And I don't think I would be able to read this. Oh yes, once I had a very depressing after-read phase as I completed "The City of Joy"--TB-infected poverty-stricken person selling his own skeleton on advance payment kind of stuff.

Thanx, Lotus.


Anonymous said...

Lotus, I've included your post in the latest Carnival of Feminists - http://apusworld.com/blog/2008/10/carnival-of-feminists-no-66/


Lotus Reads said...

@Nanda ~ Thank you and welcome! I haven't read "City of Joy" yet but I do want to read it and yes, I am sure it was an extremely moving and unforgettable book. Didn't they make a movie on it as well?

The way I see it, there are three factors that enable Cambodia's ugly sex trade to continue...poverty, corruption and a disenfranchised female population. If women had more education, they would hone other skills and be financially independent of husbands or pimps.

Cambodia has an amazing number of NGO's...it truly surprises me that this terrible trade is allowed to continue when there are so many foreign watchdogs about town. Just what are these NGO's doing???

Lotus Reads said...

@Apu ~ Thanks so much! I love the idea of a Carnival of Feminists!!! You have put together an amazing collection of posts...I have only just started to read them, but I can see they are going to keep me thinking and pondering for days together. Thanks for hosting this event.

J said...

Wow, what a horrid situation for so many young girls (and boys to a lesser extent). Your analysis of the roots of the problem is very thought provoking, and the plight of these people is heartbreaking.

I recently read another book you suggested, "Sightseeing", and I loved it.

Um Naief said...

incredible post. i definitely want to read this book.

if you don't mind, i want to copy this and put it on my blog.. linking to your blog, beforehand.

i think i read your review of Playing Cards in Cairo. i got the book and loved it.

i love your reviews.

Id it is said...

Thanks for the heads up, and I'm sure I'm going to find myself a copy of this book to read, but aren't we seeing an outpouring of this theme in the writing world today? Where are the happy and satisfied people, and who will write about them and their happiness? Why do we focus on and thrive on the tragic of this world? I too am guilty of this obsession with the deprived and the desperate of the world and I do so want to break this mold! I want to find novels and novelist that see the world through a different lens, one which smiles, is content and makes for a brightness that disintegrates the boredom and frequent gloom of our everyday life.
Lotus, this is no way a critique of what you, or anyone for that matter, chooses to read; I am just curious to know whether you too feel or have felt this way about the literature that gets added onto those shelves at our bookstores.
Good to see you back!

Lotus Reads said...

@J ~ Thank you for your comment. After visiting Cambodia I fell in love with the people and felt obliged to highlight some of their problems. I am so pleased you enjoyed "Sightseeing"...which was your favorite story there?

@Umm Naief ~ Please do!!! I'm always happy to spread the news of Somaly's work and of all the children she's been saving. So glad you enjoyed "Playing Cards in Cairo", did you write up a review? I would love to know your thoughts, especially because you live in that part of the world and are familiar with Egyptians and their customs.

Lotus Reads said...

@Id ~ You make some great points! I have to agree, the bestsellers list, especially in the UK for some reason, is crowded with memoirs that involve tragic and miserable childhoods. While it's cathartic for a lot of abused people to write their stories down and to share their "secrets", one has to wonder how much of that catharsis has to do with money! Also, what does it say about us, the readers, that we actually propel these books onto the bestsellers lists? Are we all voyeurs, or do we read to learn more about the ugly side of life and to appreciate our own?

In my case, I seldom read tragic childhood memoirs, but I had to read Somaly's because I visited her country and her childhood is not unique in Cambodia. With activism in my blood I felt compelled to let other people know what terrible dangers and futures poor kids in Cambodia are exposed to. Also, Somaly is doing some fabulous work in rescuing some of these unfortunate children (she was CNN's woman of the year) and a portion of the proceeds from this book go to her foundation so that even more girls can be saved and rehabilitated.

BTW, I read a really fun book after this one...it's called "Lost on Planet China" by J. Maarten Proost. It was laugh-out-loud funny, I hope you can read it!

gypsy said...

Like Sanjay, even I'd a notion that it is Thailand that is most affected as far as sex slavery or prostitution is concerned.

I wonder how the author as per your description of prose has moved away from her own past, mebbe life makes us too hard for emotions.

Yet, its good to know that she feels for those girls back in Cambodia and has taken action to save them.

Anonymous said...

Hey! Actually thanks to your review, I went and bought this book.

I was like you mentioned truly touched, and have not been able to read anything at all after that!

it is difficult to imagine such things r actually happening.

Your review is AWESOME!

I have done a small review too, nothing like yours :-)

Check it out

thanks for telling about this book, I am grateful!

Lotus Reads said...

@Gypsy ~ Hi! Well, the author did say that writing the book was very,very hard for her to do because it kept bringing back terrible memories...sometimes the only way to stop memories from hurting you is to distance yourself from them and maybe that is why some of the writing although descriptive, seems to lack a heavy emotion.

@Veens~ I am so pleased you went out and bought the book, thank you! I am even more pleased that it seemed a worthy buy. I will definitely stop by your blog sometime today. Thanks very much for letting me know.

Anonymous said...

Thank You for visiting my blog, and actually commenting there! I kind of follow your blog, and look at your reviews. i had totally forgotten, how I got the book; and suddenly one day I remembered you have not updated the blog for long and visited.

That's really a great thought, about starting it in Canada! :-) Awesome. I hope to donate money! Hopefully ..!
I am glad, I read it.. and it is precious little book, but I don't want to keep it. I want to pass it on to people, and make them read it.. and be ATleast AWARE!.



Um Naief said...

no, i didn't write a review. i did love the book for the very reason... being around so many egyptians.. especially my MIL! :) that's the main reason i got the book... to have a key to the inside of something that seems so foreign to me, plus i had some friends and am always running into egyptians.

i think it painted an accurate portrayal of life in egypt and cairo.

thanks for the great review. i might write a little piece, on day... but who knows... my writing abilities seem to have gone down hill after having my son... ;)

Anonymous said...

This post is one of the best posts i have ever came across. All this things i have just seen in the movies or heard as stories. Never came across reality. Just the article scared me so much, what about those girls who have faced this. common look at the age, just five... Those people should be punished like anything..
I would like say a big thanks.. for such good deed...

Anonymous said...

Just heard about this book today, googled the title, and found this site. It breaks my heart, as a mom and a grandma.

Since you mentioned your fondness for Cambodia, I thought I'd let you know about another book, which was written by a man I know here in Oregon. It's called "Pathway to Peace" by Srunny Huong. He lived through hell growing up under the Khmer Rouge regime, then coming to the United States, and his life and dreams.

Thank you for all that you do.

Lotus Reads said...

Thank you Anon(s) for your comments! I also appreciate the book suggestion...I will definitely look out for "Pathway to Peace" by Sunny Huong. My heart bleeds for Cambodia...