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.
"Sometimes the women themselves, they think that it is normal that they have been sold in a brothel," Mam tells her. "It's like me. Before, I think it's normal that I have been sold. . . . I never knew that I had rights."
"Where do you find that courage?" Schakowsky asks Mam -- which is another way of probing the central mystery of her life: How did she discover she had rights? Where did she find her voice?
There was no Somaly Mam to help Somaly Mam. How did Somaly Mam help herself? How did she learn to banish silence?
She was born in about 1970 or 1971 in a village inhabited by a dark-skinned mountain tribe that was scorned by the lowland Khmer. The upheaval of the Vietnam War was followed by the murderous strife of Pol Pot's dictatorship. Her parents disappeared, then so did her grandmother.
She was a child on her own in a culture where children are "a kind of domestic livestock," she writes, and where "there is only one law for women: silence before rape and silence after."
"I remember one day I have been raped by a man," she says in an interview while awaiting Schakowsky's return from a vote in Congress. "I just want to run away home. I want to talk to people, have them to know. But when I need people to help me, no one help me. So I keep silence."
A man who claimed to be her grandfather enslaved her as a servant in his house. Then he sent her to a brothel. There, she says, her will was broken. She stopped feeling, stopped caring or hoping. But she found she still cared for the new girls arriving all the time -- girls who were still alive inside.
What saved her was the possibility of saving others. She could speak up for them, even if she did not feel worthy to speak up for herself.
"I think that experience make me stand up," she continues, tears coming to her eyes. "Something happen to me I didn't want to happen to the girls. I didn't want to happen to another one. Because it's not easy to survive it."
Mam began by helping a pair of new girls from the country escape the Phnom Penh brothel where Mam herself was a prisoner, working to pay off the debt owed by her "grandfather" to the brothel owner. Then Mam was lucky enough to be picked up by a client who was a Swiss humanitarian worker. He was yet another john, but he was not violent, and he eventually gave her a present of enough money to help out more girls.
Mam met more foreigners, and in about 1991 became the girlfriend of a French relief worker who spoke fluent Khmer, and whom she eventually married. She got work cleaning houses and hotels. Her husband respected her more than she respected herself. She thought he was "crazy" to insist that she make her own decisions and "do whatever I want."
She learned to look people in the eye. She realized she had rights. She stopped keeping silent.
She and her husband had two children and adopted a third, but their marriage fell apart a few years ago.
In 2004, Mam and her staff helped launch a police raid against their biggest brothel target yet, a hotel in Phnom Penh where 200 women and girls worked. The owners had powerful connections. She and her staff received death threats. A mob of men broke into one of Mam's shelters and carried off 90 women and girls who had taken refuge there, she writes. Mam never saw them again.
A friend called her on the phone: " 'You know you're going to die, Somaly. Run away.' " Mam refused to leave "my girls, my victims," as she calls them.
Instead, she spoke in French into a tape recorder for three days and sent the tapes to friends in France. She wanted her story told, in case anything ever did happen to her. A ghostwriter helped fashion her dictation into her autobiography, published in French in 2005, and updated for the English translation, released this month.
Sex trafficking is more organized than it was when she was in a brothel. Pimps are more systematic, recruiting girls from poor families and villages. The girls are shuffled from Cambodia to Vietnam and Thailand and back, to keep them isolated and more powerless.
"We save many, but we have many still in brothels," Mam says. "It's why in the nighttime I cannot sleep. Because when I close my eyes, I know exactly the time that the client come, I know exactly the time that they rape the girl, the time that the pimp hit us."
She has tried to understand the mentality of families that abet this system. She met a mother who went to a brothel to pick up the money her 10-year-old daughter earned there.
"I have a husband who beats me," the woman said, as Mam quotes her in the autobiography. "As soon as there's any money in the house, he drinks, then he beats me up and rapes me. He hits the children. And my daughter is in the brothel so that, thanks to her, there's a little money."
The girls in Mam's shelters are given a chance to go to school and grow up. They are returned to their families only if it appears they will not be forced back into prostitution. Some die of AIDS in the shelters.
Leaving Schakowsky's office, Mam goes outside to a nearby fountain with pretty flowers. She and her Cambodian colleagues -- Sophea Chenda Chhun and Sylor Lin -- giggle and mug for a camera they have brought with them. The tears are gone from Mam's eyes, and all does not appear to be darkness in her life.
Yet, for all she has achieved, and learned how to say, she still struggles to believe she amounts to anything. "I still feel that I'm dirty and that I carry bad luck," she says in her book.
She wears a lot of perfume, and anyone standing near her on this day can smell it. She says the perfume is not enough to wash away the stench of the brothels that still haunts her. The better way to ward it off, she says, is her field work in Cambodia, her direct contact with fellow victims, who know what she means when she says she is dirty.
"It's insufferable," she writes. "The customers were dirty. They never showered. I remember one man with the most hideous breath. We had no toothpaste, but we would brush our teeth with ash or sand."
"I don't feel like I can change the world," she also writes. "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, because if I didn't, I wouldn't be able to live with myself or sleep at night."
When a new girl comes to the shelter, the activist who learned to speak up knows it is best not to use her voice then. The girl is too traumatized to speak. Mam sits with the girl, hugs her, holds her the way a mother might -- the way she wished someone had held her. She calls this silent communication "heart talking."
"Sometimes when you talk, you can say something that is not true," Mam says. "But the heart talking is true."