NEW YORK (Reuters) - Abandoned as a child in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s murderous reign, Somaly Mam has no memory of her family and doesn’t know her true age or name. But she recalls when she was sold to a brothel.
She traces a dramatic and haunting journey from sex slave to crusader against forced prostitution in her newly released memoir, “The Road of Lost Innocence,” which reads like a Dickensian tale of triumph over adversity.
Remarkably, she does not see her path from a remote mountain region of Cambodia to an international campaigner as awe-inspiring.
“I never feel that way, I’m still Somaly. I used to work in the fields and now I help victims,” she told Reuters in an interview.
Born in the early 1970s, she fleetingly recalls the Khmer Rouge’s rule, when an estimated 1.7 million people were executed or died of torture, starvation or disease during a disastrous four-year agrarian revolution in the late 1970s.
Set adrift, she was taken in by an elderly man whom she called “grandfather,” an honorific title that belied his cruel character. When she was about 16 years old, he sold her to a brothel to pay off his debts.
Held captive for years, she watched in horror as the brothel owner one day shot a girl in the head for insolence — one of many acts of violence in Cambodia’s notorious sex trade where poor families sometimes sell a daughter to pay debts.
Laws to prevent abuse against women are poorly enforced.
With the help of a Swiss patron employed by a nongovernmental organization, Mam paid the brothel owner $100 to let her go, one of the few ways women can leave safely.
At his hotel, she experienced her first hot shower. “He ... turned on a shiny thing, like a snake, and it flashed to life, spitting at me ... That was the first time I ever used proper soap, and I remember how good it smelled, like a flower,” she writes.
Mam eventually married and lived in France for a time before returning to Cambodia determined to help “the girls” in whatever way she could. She started by distributing condoms and soap — both of which were rarely available in Cambodia’s brothels.
Shunned in their home villages, Mam and others formed a shelter for women and girls, the Agir pour les Femmes En Situation Precaire — Acting for Women in Distressing Situations (AFESIP).
The largely Spanish-funded grass-roots group expanded to neighboring Thailand and Laos, providing counseling, shelter and education on AIDS prevention. Its members also speak to men on the perils facing girls in the sex trade.
Future Group, a nongovernmental organization that combats human trafficking, estimates the number of prostitutes and sex slaves in Cambodia at up to 50,000, with at least 1 in 40 girls born in Cambodia expected to be sold into sex slavery.
Today, Mam travels the world raising money for the Somaly Mam Foundation to draw attention to forced prostitution, estimating that 2 million to 4 million women and children will be sold into the global sex trade in the next 12 months.
Legalization of prostitution is not the answer, she said, at least not in Cambodia.
“Women are not toys,” she said. “All of us, we need equality. If you want to live with dignity, it is without prostitution, without this violence.”
Fighting to close notorious brothels made her enemies in Cambodia. Shelters run by her group have come under armed attack and women have been abducted.
In 2006, Mam’s teen-age daughter was kidnapped. She was eventually rescued, but Mam still faces threats in her battle against underworld figures who control the trade. Undaunted, she says the work is too important to walk away from.
“You know, these victims and me — we have the same heart, the same body, the same pain,” she said. “It’s not just Cambodia. If I can help around the world, I’ll do it.”
Editing by Jason Szep and Xavier Briand