Speaking today at the Clinton Global Initiative Conference, President Obama spoke out against the “barbaric” practice of human trafficking, and signed an executive order providing greater protections against trafficking for potential victims.
At any given moment, an estimated 2.4 million people around the world are the victims of human trafficking. In the Independent Lens documentary Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, celebrity activist and CARE Ambassador Meg Ryan travels to Cambodia with Nicholas Kristof to visit Somaly Mam with the Somaly Mam Foundation, a nonprofit charity committed to ending modern-day slavery and empowering its survivors to be part of the solution.
In a society where females are considered the insignificant sex, Cambodia is a country where most uneducated young girls are likely to not only be raped, but killed as well. The most common form of human trafficking in Cambodia is sexual exploitation. According to TWN, today, there are an estimated 57,000 commercial sex workers in Cambodia.
Human-rights advocate Somaly Mam is the founder and president of the Somaly Mam Foundation in Cambodia. At a young age Somaly was raped, trafficked, and brutally mistreated by her brothel owners. She was forced into prostitution against her will and witnessed her best friend’s murder by one of the brothel owners. Fortunately, she managed to escape and break free from the chains of sexual exploitation.
Today, Somaly considers herself the mother and grandmother of all the suffering girls who have been sex slaves in Cambodia. Her mission is to help victims become survivors. Once the girls are rescued, they are often rejected by their families and by society due to the self-perpetuating sex trade industry. The Half the Sky Movement website states, “Once girls are sold into sex slavery, they often know nothing else and are so stigmatized that they remain in the trade, even when that means selling sex voluntarily.” Fortunately, Somaly educates these girls and helps create a more promising future for them.
Half the Sky explores the world of human sex trafficking in Cambodia. In the documentary, Nicholas Kristoff and Meg Ryan visit Cambodia and interact with several young girls who have experienced sex trafficking firsthand.
Girls as young as 3, are sold to brothels by their families, while girls older than 12 are often considered too old for these establishments. Half the Sky features one girl who was in a brothel for 8 years before being rescued at the age of 15. Another was forced to take clients after being stabbed in the eye by the brothel owner.
According to Somaly, women are often taken to military soldiers in the Khmer Rouge region in Cambodia, a place that is both dangerous and secluded. Many brothels are owned by military families, making it extremely difficult to rescue girls due to the increased security.
Unfortunately, this form of slavery has proven to be a problem not only in Cambodia, but in several other countries around the world. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn calculate that an estimated three million women and girls are currently enslaved in the sex trade worldwide – individuals who are bought, held, and forced into this line of work against their will. Kristof wrote in his New York Times column, “By my calculations, at least 10 times as many girls are now trafficked into brothels annually as African slaves were transported to the New World in the peak years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.”
While sex trafficking has proven to be incredibly difficult to stop, it is critical that certain steps be taken in order hold governments accountable for passing and enforcing anti-trafficking laws in the attempt to abolish this form of modern day slavery. Both governments and the public should be working towards shutting down jail-like brothels and cracking down on the buying and selling of underage girls.
To learn more about sex trafficking in Cambodia, tune in to Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. This two-night broadcast special will premiere as part of Independent Lens on PBS on October 1 and 2, 2012.