Survivor Stories


What you can do

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You have just read the stories of two young women, Kolab and Phalla, who escaped the sex trade in Cambodia through the help of an organization called AFESIP (Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation PrĂ©caire, which in English translates to Acting for Women in Distressing Situations). AFESIP was established in 1996 by Somaly Mam, herself a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation in Cambodia. Somaly was subjected to rape, forced into marriage, and sold into sexual slavery by her “grandfather” at age twelve. After suffering unspeakable violence, abuse, and rape for years, she finally escaped, and later dedicated her life to helping other victims of sexual exploitation. Over the years she has won numerous awards and recognition, and despite death threats and other obstacles, she continues to provide love, protection and support—from one survivor to another—to girls escaping the horrors of the sex trade.

In 2008, Somaly published her memoir The Road of Lost Innocence. We encourage you to read her story as part of an existing or new book group and discuss per the Reading Guide below (and here as a pdf). The Guide will help explore Somaly’s story (and Kolab and Phalla’s story) and hopefully come to  a deeper understanding of the factors which lead to global commercial sexual exploitation as well as what solutions we can all undertake together to end this abominable human injustice. It may seem like an overwhelming problem, but as Somaly says, "I don't feel like I can change the world. I don't even try. I only want to change this small life that I see standing in front of me, which is suffering. I want to change this small real thing that is the destiny of one little girl. And then another, and another..."

AFESIP performs outreach to victims of the sex trade in the red light district. Photo courtesy of AFESIP.

Reading Guide – Somaly Mam, The Road of Lost Innocence

I would like this book to serve as a call to the governments of the world to get involved in the battle against the sexual exploitation of women and children. Victims are victims in every country” (pg. 189)  [Page numbers refer to the 2009 paperback version, published by Spiegel & Grau.]

1. The theme of silence: Silence is an important theme throughout Somaly’s memoir; she mentions many times how Cambodian culture promotes silence and passivity in women (On rape: “Cambodian people don’t talk about such things. It would only shame me and the people who heard me.” p. 25; “There is only one law for women: silence before rape and silence after. We’re taught when we’re little to be like the silk cotton tree: dam kor. Deaf and dumb.” p 185.), and how the history and violence of war made people not want to talk about their own suffering (“Talking is not an easy or common thing in Cambodia. People tend to be very restrained, and tradition demands you remain silent about misfortune.” p 162). Somaly made the conscious choice to break that silence and to talk with people about her own experience and about the sex industry in general. What were her turning points, in learning to access her own voice, and how did she use that to make a difference?

Are there taboos around breaking the silence of sexual violence in your own culture? What are some of the barriers to speaking out which victims of sexual exploitation might face? How can we benefit from allowing the stories of survivors themselves to inform our work to end global commercial sexual exploitation?

2. The importance of sexual education: Cambodian culture instills an attitude in men that women’s bodies are for them to abuse as they wish (“To men, women are like servants. That’s the way it has always been in Cambodia. Girls are taught only shame and ignorance about their bodies, and men have their first sexual experience in brothels. Rape is the only thing they know.” p. 152), and they are never taught about female sexual pleasure and healthy ways to engage with their partners (“Cambodian women are taught to submit, but the idea of female pleasure in our culture is foreign. The men say their wives’ passivity disgusts them. No one is happy in this situation. Tradition says the wife must stay quiet, unmoving, while the husband gets on with his business.” p. 152-53.). How might open and honest discussion of sexuality change attitudes toward the ways in which men and women think about sex? About rape? About prostitution? What stereotypes exist in your own culture that encourage harmful sexual exploitation and abuse?

3. The role of the buyers—addressing demand: Purchasing another human being for one’s sexual pleasure is exploitation. When women are viewed as mere objects, their human rights are denied. As part of her outreach with AFESIP, Somaly Mam recognized that she needed to reach out not only to the victims in the brothels, to protect them, but also to the men who were buying sex, to educate them. “Sometimes one or two of the girls from our shelter would come to talk about what had been done to them. The men in the audience would often break down and cry. Many of them had been clients of prostitutes just like these girls, but somehow it had never occurred to them to think about how the girls were being treated.” p. 153) How is such a disconnect between victim and perpetrator possible, and how does that disconnect feed into the commercial sex trade?

How might the fight to end commercial sexual exploitation be changed by shifting the focus onto the purchasers of sex? Some countries criminalize the buyer and don't criminalize those in prostitution because they're considered to be victims of exploitation (this is called the Nordic Model). What do you think about this approach?'

4. The myth of choice: In Somaly’s telling of her story and the story of her fellow survivors, she speaks to a myth that is present in many cultures—that women in prostitution choose to partake in it. (“It simply isn’t true, as some people think, that the girls are glad to find work, that they volunteer for it, that they are well paid.” p. 189) What are the different ways in which Somaly and the other girls are forced into prostitution? What about Kolab and Phalla? Who are the “sellers”?

How does the psychology of debt and ownership (“It never occurred to me to slip away and try to make my way back to the forest... I owed this man—even though he starved and hurt me, I belonged to him." p. 14) and the language of human-beings-as-commodities “I was only 16 and I had MERCHANDICE written on my forehead.” p. 53), affect the women and children who are trafficked?

5. The importance of legal rights & implementation: Somaly addresses the importance of informing survivors of their legal rights (“At the Tom Dy Center, a paralegal whom we work with gives each women advice and explains her rights. These women usually have no idea about this—after all, there is nothing in daily life in Cambodia to indicate that they have any rights.” p. 162). Discuss the importance of a legal framework in combating the global sex trade and of educating individuals on their legal rights.

Once laws are established, assuring their implementation is the next step. AFESIP has brought about 2,000 cases before the courts and only won 5% of these cases due to corruption and the business interests of the brothel owners. What is the role of corruption in perpetuating the systems of human trafficking? What are the barriers to justice for these women? What laws and processes could potentially be put in place to make the legal system more responsive to the needs and situations of victims of human trafficking?