Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Activist Somaly Mam stills UCF ballroom with stories of human trafficking

Activist and author Somaly Mam signs a copy of her book for a student at UCF on Monday night. (GORETTI DUNCKER/SPECIAL TO THE SENTINEL)


By Goretti Duncker
Special to the Sentinel

In a room of nearly 200 chairs, there was not an empty seat. There were people standing, watching, all along the walls, trailing out the doors and into the halls, all gathered to hear the story of one woman.

In the UCF Student Union Cape Florida Ballroom Monday night, Somaly Mam, author of "The Road of Lost Innocence,'' spoke to this crowd about her fight to end human trafficking in her country, Cambodia.

Like Mam, many Cambodian women and girls are sold as sex slaves to brothels because of the severe poverty in the country. When families need money they give up their girls, many still pre-pubescent, and some as young as 4 or 5 years old. She said these girls grow up without a sense of love or family.

"I don't know my name, I don't know my parents, I don't know my age," said Mam, who sat in a black office chair. Because of the sensitive nature of the subject discussed, rather than give Mam a podium to stand on, the room was set up for a quiet, intimate, studio-type conversation.

In Cambodia, Mam always dreamed of being part of a family, and thought she had found one when a man offered to be her grandfather when she was a young teen. Instead of love he physically and sexually abused her, and soon sold her to a brothel. Mam spoke about the dangers of living in the brothel and how difficult it was to escape. Some girls who tried to leave, including one of her friends, were murdered.

Girls who are raped in the brothels are rejected by their families and are made to believe that they caused the abuser to attack. Mam said that girls could not understand why anyone would leave the brothel.

"They ask why escape from the brothel? Who would love you, who would give you life? People don't understand," said Mam.

Mam was a rare case. After escaping the brothel, she helped found the Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire (AFESIP), which translated in English means "Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances.'' AFESIP is dedicated to stopping sex trafficking by setting up rehabilitation and reintegration centers in Cambodia. She later teamed with American human rights activists to establish the Somaly Mam Foundation, a charity that also works to combat trafficking.

Human trafficking is an acute problem worldwide. According to the U.S. State Department's 2009 "Trafficking in Persons Report,'' 1.39 million children and adults are victims of commercial sexual servitude, with 56 percent of these victims being women and girls. While trafficking occurs all over the world, it is a particularly bad problem in Southeast Asia, according to the report, especially in countries such as Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Bill Livermore, executive director of Somaly Mam Foundation, said it's difficult fighting trafficking in a country like Cambodia because the citizens don't see why the women should be helped.

"The biggest challenge is that we don't empower women. Women are treated like a legal minority," said Livermore. "If we can champion that, if we can move that benchmark up, it will have a dramatic impact on trafficking."

Livermore said that the foundation has had significant help in raising money in areas of the U.S. where sex trafficking has become an issue.

"The most critical thing is to raise awareness about the issue," said Livermore. "Governments will not change unless they are embarrassed into changing. If none of you gave us a penny but you committed to telling five of your friends [about what's happening] that would make us even happier."

Stephanie Nicholas, freshman and political science major, learned about human trafficking after reading Mam's book. When she discovered Mam was coming to UCF to speak she said she had to go, and she even brought two friends along. After obtaining her law degree, Nicholas wants to do pro bono work with victims of trafficking.

"[I want] to hear her story, from her point of view," said Nicholas, inspired by Mam's experiences. "No matter where you come from and no matter what people do to you, you can still make something of your life."

Goretti Duncker is a UCF journalism student.

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