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From brothel to boardroom

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Somaly Mam counts Tyra Banks, Hillary Clinton and the pope as acquaintances but still strives to help ‘victims' of prostitution

Photo by: CHRISTOPHER SHAY

Somaly Mam at her organisation, anti trafficking NGO Afesip's offices in Phnom Penh last week.

THE RISE OF AFESIP'S SOMALY MAM

As a child, Somaly Mam was sold into a brothel and never knew her real name. When she escaped from prostitution she chose the name Somaly, meaning "the necklace of flowers lost in the virgin forest", as it fit NWEidea of who she was at the time. In 1996 she and Pierre Legros, a French human rights worker, founded the anti-trafficking NGO Afesip ,of which Somaly Mam has been president of for the past 12 years. She is an internationally acclaimed activist: In 2006, she was Glamour Magazine's Woman of the Year and this year, won the World's Children's Prize. In Cambodia, she is a more controversial figure. Afesip, has been criticised for its cooperation with law enforcement agencies and for allegedly not allowing sex workers to leave the NGO's safehouses. Last year Somaly Mam released a critically acclaimed English-language translation of her memoir, The Road of Lost Innocence, which chronicles her rise from sex slave to activist. 

How do you feel about your newfound fame?

I'm not famous. We're still Afesip as normal. I feel normal. I just hope we can change the country, and we can get more people to pay attention to trafficking. People tend to keep talking and don't do enough acting. I'm fed up. I don't think I'm famous, but I'm here letting people know about what's going on in trafficking. People outside the country have to know too. Afesip does our work, and we are still small.  We try to find solutions. We are a local organisation; we cannot find all the solutions. We have to have the political commitment to change.

Where does Afesip get its funding?
A lot of funds come from the Spanish [government], but also from the [United] States. We have funds from Queen Latifah and Barbara Walters. I was also lucky to meet Susan Sarandon,  who helped me a lot.

What is your opinion about Cambodia's new anti-sex-trafficking law?

It's complicated. We should have law. The problem is the people who implement the law. When we passed the law, no one understood it. They didn't talk about it to the people. Afterwards, there were people playing with the law - the police - who always manage to find a way to take money. I think we should have the law, but we have to work very strongly on the law enforcement.

A few months ago, sex workers came together to protest the new anti-trafficking law.

I know that the law is not easy to understand. I know the law is not perfect for protecting the victims. I know that some articles are not clear. What I don't like is people who take the victims - I don't want to call them prostitutes, they're victims -   who use them to fight against law. I just want to say to them, "Stop using these girls". They have to make their own decisions. When I saw associations using victims for politics, I wanted to know, "Why do you have to use them to fight?"

What's the state of the sex industry in Cambodia right now?
If you go to the streets, everything is closed down, but they're just closed in front. Underground, we have the problem again. We cannot say that right now is better. In my opinion, it's getting worse and worse. We cannot see them [prostitutes]. We cannot access them to give them condoms or bring them to hospitals. They are afraid of the law.

Could you explain how you work together with the government?

We cannot work without them. It's not easy. Some of them are bad. There is corruption, but some them are good. Right now, we've identified the people who are working hard like the Ministry of Women's   Affairs and the police. We still have a problem with justice. The problem is the court. We also have some problems with the police in the countryside. They don't understand law enforcement involving victims. In Phnom Penh, it's better now.

When police take sex workers into custody, do they bring them to your clinic?

We work with the anti-trafficking police. Yes, they bring them to us. We also work directly with the [Ministry of] Social Affairs. They have a shelter. When they save the girl, they'll call us. We go there and try to talk to the girl and tell them about Afesip. If they agree to come, we bring them.

If a sex worker decides to come in the clinic, what happens then?

If they want, they can come. Some of them, we just say, "You should come visit us". It's not our staff always going to talk to them. The victims themselves come. Sometimes they agree to stay one week, and then they make the decision to go home or stay longer. If they ask us to bring them home, we bring them home.

Do all the girls make the decision to stay at Afesip?

Not all of them. Some of the victims are young. They are underage. We cannot let them go back into a brothel because they are seven or 12.

They stay because they are children. What I like to see is them becoming children again. They take off their make-up. It's my dream to see them playing and laughing again.

How does your organisation, Afesip, do its brothel rescues?

We are not rescuing. We are cooperating. When we know something, our investigations team tells the trafficking police. They are the best.

They can work with us. We cannot go into the street. We work with them. When they have our complaint, they go into the brothel to make sure there is a problem. Then, if someone signs an agreement saying we can go into a brothel to save the girl, then we go in. We are not saving them. We are going with the police.

How does your organisation determine which women are sex workers and which are sex slaves?

A lot of them have been raped before they become part of the sex industry. A lot of them when I go to see them, and I ask, ‘Why are you in the brothel? Why don't you want to get out?' A lot of them have psychological  problems. They agree to sell themselves. They are sex slaves, because they have to survive. A lot of them say they are free, but for me, they are not free. They are the victims of the situation.

Are all women in brothels victims?

Yes. It's really hard when someone comes to me and tells me, "I had more then 10 clients who raped me with a plastic bag. I tell them we have Afesip, but they tell me, "I cannot now". I am surprised at all the girls who do come to Afesip.

Many of the girls, they are destroyed. They have problems because they feel guilty themselves. Give the victims time and try to work with them and prove to them that you really want to help them. You have to have patience.

How has your background as a former sex slave affected the way you run Afesip today?

I work by my emotions. What I was denied, I want to give to others. I want to give them love and trust. I'm not a manager. I have my team who manages for me.

I work by emotions. I just want to take care of the girls. We need both. We have to have heart and patience. I can find money for Afesip. Normally when you're president, you have to stay in the office, but I hate staying in the office.

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