Sex slaves' crusader battles pimps, credit crisis

Tue May 26, 2009 3:50am EDT
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By Candida Ng

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - Somaly Mam has been held at gunpoint, her daughter has been kidnapped and her house burned down. Now, the Cambodian former sex worker turned activist is battling the global financial crisis.

One of the most pressing concerns Mam, who crusades against forced prostitution, is facing is scarce funding for the shelter she helped start for women and girls who are abused and coerced into the sex trade in Cambodia and neighboring countries.

The current credit crunch also has had a effect on the number of women and children turning to prostitution to survive and the ability of Mam to care for her more than 200 charges in shelters.

"Since we opened the shelter, I always face this problem. Like the last five months, no rice, we cannot feed the children," Mam, of Agir pour les Femmes En Situation Precaire (AFESIP or Acting for Women in Distressing Situations), told Reuters.

AFESIP, a largely Spanish-funded grass-roots group, requires about $1.5 million annually to fund its efforts in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, Mam said. She also travels around the world to raise money for the Somaly Mam Foundation that puts a spotlight on forced prostitution.

Earlier this month, Cambodia said it expects an increase in prostitution and human trafficking as the unemployment rate climbs during the economic downturn.

The poor Southeast Asian nation has been trying hard in recent years to rid itself of its reputation as a haven for perverts and pedophiles, but with limited success.

Mam, in Singapore to raise funds for the group, said it was culturally acceptable to keep a girl for a week and rape her to improve one's health and luck in Cambodia, or to cure HIV. Some of the victims she has seen are only a few months old.   Continued...