A BLOG POST BY AMY MERRILL I work for a Cambodian woman named Somaly Mam. She doesn’t know her real name, or her birthday: she was sold at age 12 and suffered nearly a decade of rape and abuse in the brothels of Phnom Penh. But Somaly states in her memoir that her own story is not important; she is simply giving a voice to the voiceless, to help others to truly understand the depth of this atrocity.
Human trafficking is an estimated $32 billion dollar industry, with an estimated 2 million women and children sold each year.* What sets Somaly’s story apart is what she did after her escape, beginning with helping just one girl: to date, Somaly estimates that she has assisted over 4,000 women and children in Cambodia alone, and her non-governmental organization AFESIP (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire), founded in 1996, has become the largest shelter network in Southeast Asia.
AFESIP’s holistic approach ensures that a woman not only escapes her predicament, but has new choices, thanks to skills training and job placement assistance, psychological care and a solid support network. This is no quick fix: in Somaly’s words, it takes five minutes to save a girl from the brothel, but five years, or longer, to recover her. But working case by case, each woman is treated with patience, compassion, and appropriate resources, and each life is given equal value.
Working alongside the rescue, recovery and reintegration teams is a group of leaders called Voices For Change. These 12 women, all in their twenties, are survivors of sex slavery: they have been through the centers, and now represent the next generation of the anti-trafficking movement, fearlessly protecting victims’ rights and speaking out against traffickers, ‘johns’ and corrupt officials. They live together in an apartment in Phnom Penh and balance their critical duties with English classes, conferences, and leadership trainings.
Voices for Change is a program of the Somaly Mam Foundation, a US-based nonprofit created in 2007 to support Somaly's work and to elevate the survivor voice in sharing knowledge and driving solutions worldwide (www.somaly.org). We can already see results from the Voices For Change program in both higher retention rates in the training centers and in the number of women who initially accept help. Leaders lend a survivor perspective on a regional anti-trafficking radio show, conduct trainings for law enforcement and judges to better recognize and address trafficking cases, and meet with visiting dignitaries (like in 2010, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured an AFESIP center).
Just one of these women represents the potential impact, or ripple effect, of every life saved: she might be only one, but she has potential to affect change and help many others. Each life she touches can do the same, and within a generation or two the impact has grown exponentially, like new roots branching out and spreading deep and wide from a single seed.
The US State Department outlines three P’s - Prevention, Protection, and Prosecution – as fundamental framework to fight human trafficking in diplomatic, economic, political, legal, and cultural contexts. I would venture to add a fourth: People, a critical mass of individuals worldwide who merge their compassion with real action. Here are a few ways to begin:
1. Connect. Like SMF on Facebook and follow @SomalyMam on Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube. Repost/reblog/retweet. Visit www.somaly.org, join the mailing list, and learn about PROJECT FUTURES global, our network of passionate volunteers who are using what they know and who they know to raise awareness and funds for SMF in their communities.
2. Share. As William Wilberforce once said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.” Pass along articles, stories, posts, or Somaly's memoir, Road of Lost Innocence, to friends and family.
3. Support. Just $10 could provide a week's worth of food for a girl in the center, and a $50 monthly recurring donation supports these needs year-round. Alternatively, buy a $15 survivor-made Akun (‘thank you’) bracelet from our online store (www.empowermentstore.org) and wear it as a conversation-starter.
If you share our vision of a world where women and children are safe from slavery, then you share the responsibility of making it a reality. Learn more and support our work at www.somaly.org.
*Statistics are from Not For Sale, Free the Slaves.
Amy Merrill is the Director of Marketing & Development at Somaly Mam Foundation.