Rescuing Child Sex Workers

Editor’s note: A recent Newsweek story (May 21, 2014)  accuses Somaly Mam of extensive fabrication about herself and her alleged past as a victim of abuse. She has stepped down from the Somaly Mam Foundation, which says it has begun a third-party investigation into the allegations.

LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: This is a big day for the girls here at this secluded place a few hours drive south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Their mom is coming for a visit.  Not their real mother, although she might as well be. Her name is Somaly Mam.

(speaking to Somaly Mam): Where are their mothers?

SOMALY MAM: They don’t have their mothers here. A lot of them, they have been exploited, raped.

SEVERSON: Not the little girl wasn’t raped?

SOMALY MAM: Yes, of course.

SEVERSON: This little girl?

Somaly Mam was very young when she was sold to a brothel, doesn’t know how old she is now or who her parents are. She doesn’t even know her real name. She says her life didn’t begin until she ran away after she was forced to watch a pimp shoot another young girl in the head.

Somaly Mam

SOMALY MAM: One year I cannot close my eyes. Because of everything that has happened to me. I cannot close my eyes.

SEVERSON: After escaping the brothel, Somaly married and moved to Paris but was haunted by the knowledge that thousands of other young girls were still experiencing the horror she was trying to forget. So she went home again and created a recovery shelter like this, where girls can escape sexual slavery. Somaly now operates sanctuaries in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam that care for over 500 girls. There are 72 girls and four children in this center on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Most of the girls here are over 18, but many of them were sold or forced into prostitution when they were only 12, and they have the emotional scars to prove it. This young girl, who was afraid to give her name, was forced into prostitution when she left her very poor family in the country and came to Phnom Penh to find a job at a restaurant.

CAMBODIAN GIRL THROUGH TRANSLATOR: One day I had been raped by a policeman. I did not know any people in Phnom Penh, and the guy said to me if I dare to make complaint or tell anybody I will be killed.

SEVERSON: The policeman then sold her to a brothel where she says she was beaten if she didn’t have sex with five men a day. She was sold again before finally being rescued by a man who took pity on her. Then she found her way here, where she can attend school and learn skills like hair and makeup, sewing—anything that will keep her off the streets.

CAMBODIAN GIRL THROUGH TRANSLATOR: I hope that when I get skill from the center, and I get my own income, other people will not look down on me.

SEVERSON: Many girls were as young and innocent as these kids on the Phnom Penh streets when they were coerced into sex. Even though they are victims, like the little girls shown in undercover footage, they are also the condemned. It’s hard for many to go home, because in Cambodian society guilt is often attached to the girl, not the man.

somalymam-post02

SOMALY MAM: I get very upset with the culture. The culture is very bad.  They never ask the question about the man, about the client. Because they are poor, because they have bad luck, it’s always their fault.

SEVERSON: She says the police are getting better at investigating sexual slavery but says too many are still corrupt. She’s especially angry and frustrated with the justice system Cambodia that often seems to favor the predators.

SOMALY MAM: One little girl died here a few months ago. She had been raped, 7 years old, and then we go to the court. The court tell it’s her fault because she wear very short skirts.

SEVERSON: The little girl committed suicide, which tragically is not that uncommon, according to psychologist Kim Ratsmey. He counsels Somaly’s girls and says many suffer depression, and too many commit suicide.

KIM RATSMEY (Cambodian Psychologist): Maybe 30 percent commit suicide.

SEVERSON: Thirty percent?

RATSMEY: Yes, 30 percent.

SEVERSON: Like Natalie, most of Somaly Mam’s girls grew up in a culture where the vast majority of citizens embrace Buddhism, which teaches that suffering is a necessary part of life and a result of karma, or a person’s behavior in a past life. Natalie was raped and severely beaten when she was nine. She’s been with Somaly for six years and wants to be a translator when she grows up. She has not forgotten, but she has been taught to forgive the man who abused her.

SOMALY MAM: Why I have to teach my girls to hate men or to hate the people? Forgive them. It’s not for them, but for yourself.

SEVERSON: Somaly says she does not hate men, but she discovered when she got married that she could never love a man again.

SOMALY MAM: I talked to him. I never get in love with you. I cannot love you, and he tell me don’t worry. We will try. I will help you.

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SEVERSON: Their marriage ended in divorce, although they are still friends. Her passion is reserved for her girls, and she works closely with undercover police to help them escape from brothels. She has been threatened many times, but none worse than when her 14-year-old daughter was kidnapped. The police recovered her daughter several days later.

SOMALY MAM: The day that I found her I had to leave her. She had been drugged, she had been raped, and I had to leave her.

SEVERSON: It was a decision that still pains her, but she says she had to travel abroad to raise money for her shelters.

SOMALY MAM: In the shelter we have no rice, not money, nothing to feed the children. If I’m going they give money. I have almost 500 girls, and I have one daughter. One daughter between 500 girls, which one you choose?

SEVERSON: Her passion has not always endeared her to human rights groups and Cambodian authorities. Patrick Stayton is the Cambodian field director for the International Justice Mission, a faith-based organization that works to improve justice systems in Third World countries. He knows Somaly.

PATRICK STAYTON (International Justice Mission): She has ruffled her share of feathers, but you can’t help but to respect and appreciate her tenacity and the cause.

SEVERSON: She upset human rights groups when she refused to allow mothers who had sold their daughters into sexual slavery to visit them at her centers.

SOMALY MAM: They sold their children, and I don’t want them to sold their children. I have to protect these kids. I don’t care about the rumors. I’m not here for all of them to love me. I’m here just for saving them.

SEVERSON: Somaly Mam has gained international attention and attracted celebrities and friends in high places, but has become increasingly frustrated with authorities who don’t enforce laws that are on the books, and with those who offer to help but don’t follow through.

SOMALY MAM: The organized crime, they are very, very organized. The people who fight against organized crime, they are very bad—bad because they just keep talking.

STAYTON: I think it may be tougher for her sometimes at home here, because you know the person that stands up in the crowd and talks about injustices that they see and demanding something to be done about it—that’s not the popular person to be often in this kind of culture.

somalymam-post04

SEVERSON (speaking to Cambodian girl named Lytaiye): Where are your mom and dad?

LYTAIYE: I no have mom and dad.

SEVERSON: No mom and dad?

LYTAIYE: No..

SEVERSON: Fourteen-year-old Lytaiye wants Somaly to keep fighting, keep ruffling feathers. Her grandmother sold her to a stranger before she was 12. The man raped and beat her before she escaped.

LYTAIYE: It’s a very bad story, but we have to be strong, and we have to try to study, and we have a good life.

SEVERSON: So you have a happy ending?

LYTAIYE: Before I’m not happy, but now I’m very happy.

SEVERSON: These men are setting up for a wedding tomorrow. What makes Somaly Mam the happiest is when one of her girls gets married to someone she wants to marry.

SOMALY MAM: All the girls who get married, I go to see her husband: You have to be careful with my girl. If not…

You know, if you have to say thank you it’s not to me. It’s to them. They give to me everything.

SEVERSON: It’s estimated that there are as many as 50,000 sex slaves and prostitutes in Cambodia and that one in 40 girls born in this country will be sold into sexual slavery.

Fore Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Lucky Severson in Phnom Penh.

  • George Heller DDS`

    I cannot even begin tho expresee the outrage and sorrow I feel. Tears blur the lines as I write this. The dispair of parents to do this. The selfish cruelty of people to exploit this. What is the matter with this world?

  • Pam Williams

    You are an amazing woman Somaly Mam. May you always continue your cause with the support of many.

  • tracy

    I would like to help Somaly Mam
    with a donation. please send me information to do so. Thank you

  • Wendy Winburn

    Wow! This wonderful woman–Somaly Mam is making a real difference in these girls lives. Thanks for making me aware of this through your wonderful program on PBS!

  • Barry Anglin

    I take exception to the insinuation in this story that sex trafficing in Cambodia is due in part to it’s being a predominately Buddhist culture. The story implied that prostitution proliferates there because Buddhism condones suffering. It does not. Buddhist philosophy only posits that suffering is an inherent and unavoidable aspect of life. Rather than engendering a passive acceptance of suffering, Buddhism actually encourages actions that alleviate it whenever possible.

  • Michael Waldman

    Thank you for bringing Somaly’s cause to light. The mission of the Somaly Mam Foundation is to create a world where women and children are safe some slavery. If this report moved you, please get involved. You can contact us at http://www.somaly.org

    Thank you again.

  • Dottie

    Horrific and disgraceful are the people who could hurt these precious little children.I want to help out in anyway that I can. Please send me more information on how I can help. Somaly Mam is an angel… I believe the people of Cambodia are very very ignorant especially to misinterpret the Buddhist Philosophy in such a drastic way!

  • Mr. Seymour

    Great story. There are still heroes in the world. If we all stood up like this lady there would be no injustice in the world.

    @Barry Thanks for clearing up the Buddhist philosophy question I had. I dont really think there was anything to take exception to because it was just her opinion.

  • Tom Schaffnit RN Denver Health child,adolescent psychiatry

    Thank You, Wonderful coverage! there are angels doing God’s work, hopefully more than the number of perpetrators who could go to the lowest place imaginable to harm a child. It’s truly pure evil, hate and sickness, we see it every day at Denver’s main inner city hospital. Medicaid, private insurance and the mental health budgets reflect our lack of ability or willingness to address the needs of abused and at risk children. please send info. on how to send financial support to samaly mam in Cambodia. I will pray for safety and comfort in her work, she is vulnerable to attack, but sending her love,prayers and dollars is a good start. I love your show, I watch every Tues 1:00 am Rocky mtn PBS.

  • Nick Jackson

    This past summer I visited Cambodia. It breaks my heart so much to know what these girls have been through. Several of them look just like little girls I met when I was there.
    Unfortunately, Barry, I have to take exception with your comment. While Buddhism does not explicitly condone suffering it is a philosophy which says all your suffering is justice that you deserve because of your actions in a past life. Most Buddhists would not say that suffering is good and we should embrace it so openly, but it is undeniable that Buddhist thought teaches that you get the suffering that you deserve. The American form of Buddhism might differ slightly (Americans are much happier to say i deserve my reward because of my karma but my enemy deserves his suffering because of his karma), but at least in Cambodia that’s simply how it is. Seeing all the suffering that Cambodia has been through and is going through and putting it next to a system that believes in the cosmic justice of karma is heartbreaking.
    I was blown away when she said that she teaches forgiveness. That is so inspiring! A friend of mine went to Cambodia a few years ago teaching a community of our friends there about forgiveness and discovered that the word isn’t even in the Khmer vocabulary. This woman is doing great things for those girls.

  • Marie Isenburg

    Thank you for this show and for the difficult work of Somaly Mam. The story of her daughter broke my heart. I must offer a suggestion: It seems that leading by example may not seem adequate to deal with the horrors that face so many girls, but perhaps it would be worth a try to put one’s own daughters first. There are so many ways that one can be taught that one’s own children are not important, or that one child may be sacrificed for the benefit of other family members. Would it be worth a try to put one’s own daughter first to show parents and guardians that they should do the same? Our daughters must not be throwaways left to others to rescue. Let every daughter be cherished by her mother, and let them both strive to help other parents to do the same. I am glad that forgiveness is so important to the girls and their teachers. I wish each one of them a life of peace and dignity.

  • Jo Ellen

    I was lucky enough to have seen Somaly speak last september in Orlando. She is an amazing woman. You can support her in many ways including thru Somaly.Org, purchasing the Soft Hands Kind Heart Hand cream or Bag for Life at The Body Shop, or purchasing her book…which i just finished reading. Please help these girls!

  • Noemi

    This is such a SADDDD story. And people think we have it bad in America?! This story breaks my heart! But Somaly, you a great woman!! It melts my heart to know that 1 person, can make such a difference! You go girl!

  • MEL

    Child prostitution is an epidemic in some parts of the world, and it is spreading. The expose of ACORN and Planned Parenthood abuses here in America show government-funded organizations exhibiting shocking apathy towards children being exploited sexually by adults. Let us not assume that this is only happening in Cambodia or some faraway land. It is happening here at home as well.

  • Mikkel Breum

    Dear Somaly Mam, you are one of this worlds heroes. I hope many many people will support your work and go donate on Somaly.Org. Corruption is the root that makes these terrible terrible conditions possible! There is another great institution fighting corruption called Transparency International (transparency.org). I’m not affiliated and this is not meant as an ‘advertisement’, but I would like to pass the link on to anyone interested in supporting the fight against corruption. Corruption is the global basis for trafficking and slavery.

  • Barry Anglin

    Please allow me to respond to Nick’s denigration of Buddhism. Buddhist concepts are subtle in nature. They require considerable meditation and contemplation to grasp.
    Nick’s comments reflect a simplistic understanding of Buddhist doctrine not uncommon in the West. There is a “Christian” bias in certain segments of our society which leads to an oversimplification of Buddhist philosophy and I suspect that Nick may be reflecting that view.
    Although Buddhism posits that there are antecedents to the suffering inherent in life, the concept of karma can in no way be characterized as “cosmic justice.”

    And Mr. Seymour, the implication I originally referred to was not insinuated by Samaly Mam. It was in the narration of the program itself.

  • Kristin Person Staley

    Somaly Mam is an inspiration to us all. These are horrific crimes and international laws need to be changed, inforced, and the predators from the governement to the pedophiles need to pay the price for what they have done, and we as wolrd citizens need to be held accountable for helping all people in poverty and protect these precious children of God! Thank you Somaly Mam

  • EZ

    Go on the http://www.somaly.org, make a change, be inspired, act and react… Somaly does every day she is a tiredless person… never stop! Peace and love

  • abhaya joshi dixit

    I read respected “Somaly Mam”s book “the road of lost innocence” transleted in my language marathi, by Bharti Pande. I was shoked that such horrible things r happing in the same world? I couldnt sleep from the day I finished book. It is out of my imaginations………somaly mam u r a brave girl. u r working in danger. “take care” such type of cruel men r every where but i felt sorry when I read about mothers of victim girls. From such long distance I can give u my morle support only.
    “IF god IS THERE MUST HELP YOU”

  • Brad

    When I was young, sex with children was so rare or non existent. Homosexuality was hidden in the closet and also rare but known to exist. Now since homosexuality has exploded, so has child sexual abuse and it’s not uncommon at all. There are lots of people who want it and push for legal rights to it. Why? The minds of people are blinded and their hearts hardened to the evil and the pain. People are becoming as the devils already are, depraved in every way. Sex is supposed to be between one man and one woman only and also they were both virgins before they married each other for their whole lives. If people don’t believe that anymore, they’ll fall into the devils depravity.

  • bob harvey

    how does one contribute to somaly mam and her courageous and wonderful work in Cambodia
    thank you for your reply

    respectfully
    Bob Harvey

  • Lala

    Sexual exploitation of children is happening and has been happening all over the world ,earlier it was not publicised ,these days people are standing up against such crime ,thanks to the media and brave people like Somaly that these crimes and culprits are taken into account and the victims rescued . Its so foolish for people to associate religion to sexual crimes.. We are all aware that child sex trafficking is not limited to any religion ,colour or country .

  • Lala

    Sexual exploitation of children is happening and has been happening all over the world ,earlier it was not publicised ,these days people are standing up against such crime ,thanks to the media and brave people like Somaly that these crimes and culprits are taken into account and the victims rescued . Its so foolish for people to associate religion to sexual crimes.. We are all aware that child sex trafficking is not limited to any religion ,colour or country .

  • Lala

    Sexual exploitation of children is happening and has been happening all over the world ,earlier it was not publicised ,these days people are standing up against such crime ,thanks to the media and brave people like Somaly that these crimes and culprits are taken into account and the victims rescued . Its so foolish for people to associate religion to sexual crimes.. We are all aware that child sex trafficking is not limited to any religion ,colour or country .

  • Lala

    Sexual exploitation of children is happening and has been happening all over the world ,earlier it was not publicised ,these days people are standing up against such crime ,thanks to the media and brave people like Somaly that these crimes and culprits are taken into account and the victims rescued . Its so foolish for people to associate religion to sexual crimes.. We are all aware that child sex trafficking is not limited to any religion ,colour or country .

  • Lala

    Sexual exploitation of children is happening and has been happening all over the world ,earlier it was not publicised ,these days people are standing up against such crime ,thanks to the media and brave people like Somaly that these crimes and culprits are taken into account and the victims rescued . Its so foolish for people to associate religion to sexual crimes.. We are all aware that child sex trafficking is not limited to any religion ,colour or country .

  • Lala

    Sexual exploitation of children is happening and has been happening all over the world ,earlier it was not publicised ,these days people are standing up against such crime ,thanks to the media and brave people like Somaly that these crimes and culprits are taken into account and the victims rescued . Its so foolish for people to associate religion to sexual crimes.. We are all aware that child sex trafficking is not limited to any religion ,colour or country .

  • Lala

    Sexual exploitation of children is happening and has been happening all over the world ,earlier it was not publicised ,these days people are standing up against such crime ,thanks to the media and brave people like Somaly that these crimes and culprits are taken into account and the victims rescued . Its so foolish for people to associate religion to sexual crimes.. We are all aware that child sex trafficking is not limited to any religion ,colour or country .

  • Lala

    Sexual exploitation of children is happening and has been happening all over the world ,earlier it was not publicised ,these days people are standing up against such crime ,thanks to the media and brave people like Somaly that these crimes and culprits are taken into account and the victims rescued . Its so foolish for people to associate religion to sexual crimes.. We are all aware that child sex trafficking is not limited to any religion ,colour or country .

  • Lala

    Sexual exploitation of children is happening and has been happening all over the world ,earlier it was not publicised ,these days people are standing up against such crime ,thanks to the media and brave people like Somaly that these crimes and culprits are taken into account and the victims rescued . Its so foolish for people to associate religion to sexual crimes.. We are all aware that child sex trafficking is not limited to any religion ,colour or country .

  • Sam

    Asshole!!! You just blamed the acceptance of homosexuality for the depravity of STRAIGHT men who enslaved children. It is straight MEN who pay for these services. The most common sexual abuser is usually the STEPFATHER!!!, second place is the BIOLOGICAL father. These are not gay men, they are people JUST LIKE YOU.