Let’s be clear from the outset. This is not a commentary on prostitution in general, or an assumption that women do not voluntarily choose to sell sex. This is about a rising phenomenon around the world whereby girls of average age 11 (but as young as three) are sold into the industry for someone else’s profit and held against their will. They are forced to have sex with up to 30 men per day, with no protection from sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy. If they refuse, they are beaten, tortured and sometimes killed. They receive threats against their family members as a form of control. They have no value as a human being, no rights and no future. Often they are addicted to drugs by pimps to ensure compliance, and many die of HIV and AIDS related illnesses. They are subject to forced abortions or sometimes have children born into the brothels. They are rejected by their families and communities should they ever escape, and live with stigma and trauma for their remaining years. This trafficking, in other words, has nothing to do with consenting adults and everything to do with rape and child abuse (Nicholas Kristoff, New York Times).
One woman- Somaly Mam endured this life from age 11 for several years. She escaped and set up her charity AFESIP (French acronym for Acting for Women in Distressing Situations), with the aim of rescuing and rehabilitating others. And that she does, having rescued thousands of girls and women to date. I recently went to Cambodia where I saw the effects of this work first hand. I was motivated to do more, and tell others of the reality of life for many girls in this country.
‘The sale of sex is a very profitable business. Traffickers earn a lot of money, especially if the girls is young….. An ordinary girl might bring in fifteen dollars per client……(average Cambodian adult weekly wage is $20).. Four girls will make you almost ten thousand dollars a month and cost you nothing but a bit of rice and a few guns. With profits like these it’s clear you can bribe whomever you want. And it’s not just Cambodia by any means. Every day fresh girls are trucked from Cambodia across the Thai border. Cambodian girls go to Thailand, Vietnamese girls come to Cambodia: Cambodia is a destination country, a transit zone, a place of export. It’s an industry, whose product is human flesh.’ (Somaly Mam, The Road of Lost Innocence)
Undoubtedly, we must go back in history to the reign of Pol Pot to understand the social and cultural factors which have allowed this industry to flourish. He unleashed four years of genocide and terror on the Cambodian people from 1975 -1979. Displacement, imprisonment, starvation, brainwashing, torture and violence was the norm. Currency and education were abolished in favour of forced labour and compliance. Sexual and gender based violence was commonplace. 250,000 women were forced to marry under the Khmer Rouge, many suffering and witnessing rape.
An entire generation of children were orphaned, indoctrinated, born to rape, trained as soldiers or followed hideous orders of their superiors. Some of these child soldiers were later given positions in the new ‘democratic’ government and military, avoiding criminal charges. The country is still rebuilding after this genocide, during which an estimated 20% of the population was wiped out. In order to survive, Cambodians learnt to be silent during these years. This silence pervades the culture still, with people fearing to speak out or challenge authority. Law enforcement is arbitrary, but improving. This context breeds crime and corruption.
Poverty is also a driving force in parents selling their children. Firstly, parents often view their children as a commodity or possession, and therefore theirs to ‘sell’. Secondly, to improve their own financial position, or because the child is unwanted for some reason, they will sometimes willingly sell their child off to a brothel.
Further, gender stereotypes are pervasive and oppressive. To men, women are like servants….Girls are taught only shame and ignorance about their bodies and men have their first sexual experience in brothels. Rape is the only thing they know.’ (Somaly Mam, The Road of Lost Innocence ). Cultural beliefs such as that having sex with a virgin cures AIDS is currently driving the age of prostitutes down to three or four. When a virgin is sold/ rented out for a week, her vagina is stitched back together (no anaesthetic) and she is rented out again. This is done 2 or 3 times.
Clientele are Cambodians and foreigners. Somaly says ‘ I know the people who paid money to hurt these children…..most are Cambodians. They are tuk tuk drivers, cops, shopkeepers, ordinary men. The only difference in social class is the order in which they use the girls. The richest, the government officials and big business men go first. In the end when a girl costs just over a dollar, it is the turn of the poor. It’s hard to say which is worse’ (The Road of Lost Innocence). Due to tireless work by Somaly Mam and many other organisations, brothels are being raided and sometimes shut down. Girls are being rehabilitated and reintegrated into communities. However new brothels are always opening and there is no end in sight.
For human trafficking and sexual exploitation to end, massive change is needed. Political will and social mobilisation are needed world wide. Those travelling to sex districts the world over need to ask themselves a hard question: What if this woman was trafficked, and how would you know?