Sunday, January 11, 2009

The 21st century slavery (Part III)


I visited the Tom Dy Centre where about 50 women who were rescued by Somaly Mam’s team are being sheltered. The first impression one gets is how serene and normal the place looks. There is no tell-tale sign of how this place had been crashed and attacked by a mob of people awhile back. Then when I met the women, they all look so young, too young to have gone through such unimaginable ordeal.

I have also learned that sexual slavery does not discriminate in terms of appearances. Very often, I imagine that women who were being kidnapped and forced into the sex industry must possess at least one criteria; beauty. However, I have noticed that the women come in different shapes, sizes and appearances. I suppose there are only two criteria; youth and being female. (This does not mean that boys are free from being victims as well but this series is meant to focus on women.)

Everything at the centre seemed so sanitized and organized. A couple of friendly dogs were running around, keeping the women company. From a distance, I could hear monotonous chanting and discovered that  lessons were being conducted in a small classroom with about 6 women. The rest of the women were either attending lessons in another classroom, learning how to sew in a bigger room or at the hairdressing salon situated just outside the centre. They were not having their hair done. Some who have opted for hairdressing training, stay in the salon to learn and provide hairdressing services to the community around the area.

In the beautifully landscaped garden, two women sat quietly on a swing, reading. They were ill and therefore excused from attending lessons. That’s the thing. As I am writing this, I have only realised how quiet it was at the centre. Nobody was shouting, talking loudly or laughing. The sort of things you would have expected in boarding schools or classrooms. I wouldn’t say that the women looked miserable or depressed. Very often, they just looked curiously at me and many even smile, but the overall feeling was sombre.

The New York Times have been featuring a  column about some of the women rescued by Somaly Mam. The writer managed to interview two women and here are their stories. The following account is taken from Nicholas D. Kristof’s articles. I feel that there is no need for me to re-write what he has eloquently wrote. For the full article and other related topics,  please click on this  link:

These are what they do to them

(From “The Evil Behind the Smiles”)

Sina is Vietnamese but was kidnapped at the age of 13 and taken to Cambodia, where she was drugged. She said she woke up naked and bloody on a bed with a white man — she doesn’t know his nationality — who had purchased her virginity.

After that, she was locked on the upper floors of a nice hotel and offered to Western men and wealthy Cambodians. She said she was beaten ferociously to force her to smile and act seductive.

My first phrase in Khmer,” the Cambodian language, “was, ‘I want to sleep with you,’ ” she said. “My first phrase in English was” — well, it’s unprintable.

Sina mostly followed instructions and smiled alluringly at men because she would have been beaten if men didn’t choose her. But sometimes she was in such pain that she resisted, and then she said she would be dragged down to a torture chamber in the basement.

Many of the brothels have these torture chambers,” she said. “They are underground because then the girls’ screams are muffled.”

As in many brothels, the torture of choice was electric shocks. Sina would be tied down, doused in water and then prodded with wires running from the 220-volt wall outlet. The jolt causes intense pain, sometimes evacuation of the bladder and bowel — and even unconsciousness.

Shocks fit well into the brothel business model because they cause agonizing pain and terrify the girls without damaging their looks or undermining their market value.

After the beatings and shocks, Sina said she would be locked naked in a wooden coffin full of biting ants. The coffin was dark, suffocating and so tight that she could not move her hands up to her face to brush off the ants. Her tears washed the ants out of her eyes.

She was locked in the coffin for a day or two at a time, and she said this happened many, many times.

Finally, Sina was freed in a police raid, and found herself blinded by the first daylight she had seen in years. The raid was organized by Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman who herself had been sold into the brothels but managed to escape, educate herself and now heads a foundation fighting forced prostitution.

After being freed, Sina began studying and eventually became one of Somaly’s trusted lieutenants. They now work together, in defiance of death threats from brothel owners, to free other girls. To get at Somaly, the brothel owners kidnapped and brutalized her 14-year-old daughter. And six months ago, the daughter of another anti-trafficking activist (my interpreter when I interviewed Sina) went missing.

(From “If this isn’t slavery, what is?”)

Anyone who thinks it is hyperbole to describe sex trafficking as slavery should look at the maimed face of a teenage girl, Long Pross.

Glance at Pross from her left, and she looks like a normal, fun-loving girl, with a pretty face and a joyous smile. Then move around, and you see where her brothel owner gouged out her right eye.

Yes, I know it’s hard to read this. But it’s infinitely more painful for Pross to recount the humiliations she suffered, yet she summoned the strength to do so — and to appear in a video posted online with this column — because she wants people to understand how brutal sex trafficking can be.

Pross was 13 and hadn’t even had her first period when a young woman kidnapped her and sold her to a brothel in Phnom Penh. The brothel owner, a woman as is typical, beat Pross and tortured her with electric current until finally the girl acquiesced.

She was kept locked deep inside the brothel, her hands tied behind her back at all times except when with customers.

Brothel owners can charge large sums for sex with a virgin, and like many girls, Pross was painfully stitched up so she could be resold as a virgin. In all, the brothel owner sold her virginity four times.

Pross paid savagely each time she let a potential customer slip away after looking her over.

I was beaten every day, sometimes two or three times a day,” she said, adding that she was sometimes also subjected to electric shocks twice in the same day.

The business model of forced prostitution is remarkably similar from Pakistan to Vietnam — and, sometimes, in the United States as well. Pimps use violence, humiliation and narcotics to shatter girls’ self-esteem and terrorize them into unquestioning, instantaneous obedience.

One girl working with Pross was beaten to death after she tried to escape. The brothels figure that occasional losses to torture are more than made up by the increased productivity of the remaining inventory.

After my last column (“The Evil Behind the Smiles”), I heard from skeptical readers doubting that conditions are truly so abusive. It’s true that prostitutes work voluntarily in many brothels in Cambodia and elsewhere. But there are also many brothels where teenage girls are slave laborers.

Young girls and foreigners without legal papers are particularly vulnerable. In Thailand’s brothels, for example, Thai girls usually work voluntarily, while Burmese and Cambodian girls are regularly imprisoned. The career trajectory is often for a girl in her early teens to be trafficked into prostitution by force, but eventually to resign herself and stay in the brothel even when she is given the freedom to leave. In my blog,, I respond to the skeptics and offer some ideas for readers who want to help.

Pross herself was never paid, and she had no right to insist on condoms (she has not yet been tested for HIV, because the results might be too much for her fragile emotional state). Twice she became pregnant and was subjected to crude abortions.

The second abortion left Pross in great pain, and she pleaded with her owner for time to recuperate. “I was begging, hanging on to her feet, and asking for rest,” Pross remembered. “She got mad.”

That’s when the woman gouged out Pross’s right eye with a piece of metal. At that point in telling her story, Pross broke down and we had to suspend the interview.

Pross’s eye grew infected and monstrous, spraying blood and pus on customers, she later recounted. The owner discarded her, and she is now recuperating with the help of Sina Vann, the young woman I wrote about in my last column.

So Somaly saved Sina, and now Sina is saving Pross. Someday, perhaps Pross will help another survivor, if the rest of us can help sustain them.



  1. Just found your blog...thanks for taking the time to write about this. Although it's difficult to read(how do you sleep at night?!) it raises awareness and gives a more realistic picture of what goes on beneath the surface of daily life in PP.

  2. Kara, I'm happy to share this and hope you will with others too.