Of Human Bondage

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 22, 2008

For so long, silence equaled survival for Somaly Mam -- when she was raped in her Cambodian village at 12; forced to marry at 14; sold into a brothel in Phnom Penh at 16; raped, beaten and tortured more times than she can remember by the clients and pimps until she escaped that world at about 21.

The ages are approximate. She doesn't know how old she is. ("Maybe 37. Maybe 38. Maybe younger.") She never knew her parents in the deep mountain forest of her childhood, where she felt safe talking only to the trees.

Along the way, somehow she learned not to be silent. That is the most extraordinary part of her shocking life's journey, an achievement she still cannot fully explain. Her hard-earned ability to speak out has helped her rescue 4,000 girls and women from brothels in the last decade. It has helped her build one of the largest nongovernmental organizations in Cambodia, with 150 employees, sheltering 220 women and girls in that country, with more in shelters in Vietnam and Laos. And earlier this month it brought her to Capitol Hill to urge members of Congress to pass a law against human trafficking.

"What can we do to help you?" asked Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), receiving Mam in her office.

"Your pressure can help," Mam replied, saying that the United States can be an example to Cambodia and other countries where trafficking is rampant.

A bill to bolster an existing anti-trafficking statute has passed the House and is before the Senate. About 2 million people a year are trapped in sexual bondage or labor servitude as a result of trafficking, including thousands in the United States, according to the State Department.

After visiting congressional offices and addressing the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Mam planned to travel across the country promoting her autobiography, "The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine," and to raise money for her foundation, the Somaly Mam Foundation ( http://www.somaly.org).

Her small entourage included two women who work with her in Cambodia and two executives of LexisNexis, which has taken up her cause as part of the corporation's philanthropic support for international "rule-of-law" projects. Her work has been supported by the United Nations, and in 1998 she was awarded Spain's Prince of Asturias Award along with six other women's rights activists. Her work was praised by the State Department in its 2005 annual report on human trafficking.

Mam's voice is soft and shy, as if even after nearly two decades of activism she were still getting used to speaking up. Her matter-of-fact accounts, delivered in halting, imperfect English, leave her listeners shaken.

"They rape them for one week, the virgins," Mam tells Schakowsky.

The clients believe having sex with a virgin confers all sorts of benefits, even curing AIDS, Mam explains. The men -- from lowly Cambodian taxi drivers to foreign sex tourists -- assume the youngest children must be virgins, so there is a lucrative market for ever-younger girls. The girls Mam rescues are as young as 4, sold into prostitution by their families.

"Oh my God, it takes your breath away," Schakowsky says.

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