CANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - A former sex slave on Monday launched a global campaign against trafficking, saying the age of girls forced into prostitution keeps getting younger.
Cambodian Somaly Mam, whose eponymous foundation is dedicated to fighting the $12 billion a year sex-trafficking industry, said a four-year-old girl was found last month at a brothel in Cambodia after being reported by a male client.
The youngster had been sold to the brothel by her mother, who is also a prostitute.
She is now being cared for at one of the seven shelters run by the Somaly Mam Foundation in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam set up to protect and rehabilitate girls rescued from sex slavery. The group also has an office in Thailand dealing with repatriation.
"You just have to hold her and stay with her and show her that you love her. Children can become children again," Mam told Reuters as she launched a joint venture with cosmetics retailer The Body Shop to raise awareness of sex trafficking.
"There is this belief that having sex with a virgin will cure you of HIV so there is an increasing market for younger and younger girls. In my time it was girls aged 15 or 16 but it has got younger and younger."
The United Nations estimates that two million women and children are trafficked every year, with 30 percent of these in Asia. Poor families sometimes sell a daughter to pay off debts.
Mam personally knows the horror of a life of slavery having been sold to a brothel at the age of 16 by an abusive elderly man whom she called "grandfather." She was sold to pay off his debts.
She managed to escape the brothel with the help of a Swiss patron who paid off the owner and has since campaigned tirelessly against forced prostitution, setting up the Somaly Mam Foundation in 2007 to rescue and rehabilitate girls.
She was recently named one of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People."
Mam, who wrote about her journey from sex slave to crusader against prostitution in her memoir "The Road of Lost Innocence," has faced threats from pimps and organized crime syndicates over the years while her shelters have come under armed attack.
In 2006, Mam's teenage daughter was kidnapped. She was eventually rescued, but Mam still refuses to leave her work.
"All my family is safe now. We have bodyguards for my children," said Mam who refuses to give details about where her family lives.
She said global awareness about sexual slavery was extremely low and she hoped that joining forces with The Body Shop in a campaign spanning 60 nations would raise the issue's profile.
She also hoped this would lead to an increase in funds available to set up shelters were former sex workers could be trained in other industries such as sewing, weaving and even micro-finance so that they could set up their own businesses.
Over the next three years The Body Shop will campaign for governments to implement strict anti-trafficking policies and legislation, and to dedicate more resources to this cause.
"I need everyone to help our work, to open everyone's eyes to what is going on with trafficking children and what is going on in Cambodia, Asia and around the world," said Mam.
"It is not easy to get funding ... and the more people get involved the more we can stop trafficking."
Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith; Editing by