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How bad is sex trafficking in Cambodia?

The downfall of anti-sex-slavery activist Somaly Mam has led some to question the extent of trafficking.

Last updated: 09 Jun 2014 07:51
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Somaly Mam (right) was a celebrated face of anti-trafficking efforts, and dubbed a 'hero' by CNN [AP]

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - In early 2011, Srey Mao, 28, and two friends were "rescued" and taken to a shelter run by Afesip, a Cambodian organisation that prides itself on helping sex-trafficking victims recover from trauma while learning new trades such as sewing and hairdressing.

There was just one problem: The women claim they hadn't actually been trafficked.

Instead, the women said they were willing sex workers who had been rounded up off the street during a police raid and sent to Afesip, headed by the internationally renowned anti-sex-slavery crusader Somaly Mam with funding from the foundation that bears her name.

They said they were confined there for months as purported victims of sex trafficking. Srey Mao claimed that she, her friends and a number of other sex workers in the centre were instructed by a woman to tell foreign visitors they had been trafficked.

"I was confined against my will," Srey Mao said on Saturday.

The person she said ordered her and others to lie was Somaly Mam.

Falling star

For the better part of a decade, Mam has been the celebrated face of anti-human trafficking efforts in Cambodia.

With her undeniable charisma and tragic back-story as a former child sex slave, she has rubbed shoulders and traded hugs with Hollywood stars such as Susan Sarandon and Meg Ryan. CNN dubbed her a "hero" in 2007. Glamour Magazine made her a "woman of the year" honoree in 2006.

There's definitely fashions in the donor world. The big thing now is trafficking - people say, 'Oh my God, trafficking' - but how do we define that?

- Sebastien Marot, founder of Friends International

In 2010, then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited an Afesip shelter here and later spoke about her moving encounter with Long Pros, a former sex slave who said her eye was gouged out by a brothel-keeper. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, one of Mam's strongest supporters, wrote about Pros and his "hero" Mam.

Mam's star-studded image abruptly lost its sheen on May 28, when she was forced to resign from the Somaly Mam Foundation following a Newsweek cover story reporting that she had lied about her past.

Not only had Mam not been an orphaned trafficking victim - reporter Simon Marks revealed in Newsweek that she grew up with both parents and graduated from high school - but she reportedly encouraged and coached girls to lie as well.

One of these girls was Pros, who, according to Newsweek, actually lost her eye to a tumor and was sent to Afesip for vocational training. The same was reportedly true of Meas Ratha, a teenager allegedly coached by Mam to say she had been trafficked when in fact she was sent to Afesip by an impoverished farming family, desperate to give their daughter a better start in life.

Afesip representatives did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

'Lies, damned lies, and statistics'

Although the stories of Mam, Pros and Ratha have now been widely scrutinised in the media, less examined have been Mam's frequent embellished statements about the scale and nature of sex trafficking in Cambodia.

The term "trafficking" has become trendy among donors in the Western world for the pure horror it evokes - a horror that Pros embodied for many - but it leaves out a whole spectrum of complex choices and negotiations, and often erases women's agency entirely.

Sebastien Marot, founder of the nongovernmental organisation Friends International, which works with street children and other vulnerable populations, has lived in Cambodia since 1994. In all his years in the country, he said he has encountered only a handful of what he considers clear-cut cases of sex slavery, despite the lavish funding and massive attention from celebrities that the cause attracts.

"There's definitely fashions in the donor world," he said. "The big thing now is trafficking - people say, 'Oh my God, trafficking' - but how do we define that?"

Mam and her foundation have interpreted the term liberally, claiming repeatedly, along with Afesip, that sex slaves in Cambodia number in the tens of thousands.

In 2011, Mam told an interviewer that there were 80,000 to 100,000 prostitutes in Cambodia, 58 percent of whom were trafficked. In a 2010 Somaly Mam Foundation video, Hollywood actress Lucy Liu solemnly intoned in a voiceover that "the low-end estimate for the number of sex slaves in Cambodia alone is over 40,000". Mam has also claimed that it is commonplace for children as young as 3 to be sold into sex slavery in Cambodia.

The source for these numbers is unclear, and according to some, wrong.

study published in 2011 by the UN Inter-Agency Project on Trafficking based on data collected in 2008 stated that the number of sex trafficking victims in Cambodia is 1,058 at most, including 127 children, six of whom were under the age of 13. The majority of these cases involved women who had fallen into debt to their brothels, or prostitutes under the age of 18. These are both abhorrent and illegal, but they are a far cry from the extreme scenarios Mam often invoked - girls put in cages, tortured with electricity, having their eyes gouged out by pimps.

"We never encountered any such thing, and we certainly looked for it," the study's author, Thomas Steinfatt, said this week. "We couldn't find any instances of that ... In terms of people tortured, I think they've been watching too many movies."

Very often, during our short break for lunch, Afesip staff and sometimes Mam Somaly came to us and told us to tell donors and foreigners who would come to visit shelters that we were victims of human trafficking.

- Srey Mao, prostitute

Steinfatt, a professor at the University of Miami, said the figure of 1,058 is still an accurate estimate of the number of sex trafficking victims in the country. Although he has been criticised by some anti-sex-slavery activists for producing such a low figure, he is the only researcher to have systematically canvassed Cambodia seeking out brothels and collecting data on the women and girls inside.

"Sex trafficking is actually one of the smaller portions of trafficking," he said. "Much more [trafficking] goes on in labour or domestic work. It's quite literally the 'sexiest' topic, and it's something that really bothers people - which it should, but it's not the largest."

Helen Sworn, the founder of anti-trafficking coalition Chab Dai, noted that other researchers have disputed Steinfatt's findings and methodology, though added that Steinfatt's estimate "was the best available number" before laws introduced in 2008 and 2009 that caused "a significant shift underground of incidents, which was not addressed in the previous research". However, Sworn said Mam's resignation should be an impetus for soul-searching from NGOs on how to proceed in the future.

"Of course this will have repercussions on the sector, which is why we need to be intentional and professional in the way we implement programs," she said. "Funding has always been a challenge for those who don't exploit the dignity of others, so maybe this just makes for a more democratic platform where it will be equally challenging."

Mam's embellishments have also distracted attention from the very serious problems Cambodia still faces, including the structural reasons why 1,058 women and girls might be forced into prostitution and why sex work is often seen as the best job available.

'Victim' or 'prostitute'?

"Abolitionist" NGOs such as Afesip take the position that sex work is by definition coercive, and that it is impossible to choose to be a prostitute. In a 2008 interview with the Phnom Penh Post, Mam noted that she preferred to use the term "victim" rather than "prostitute", and that women who thought they were voluntary sex workers could actually be sex slaves.

In 2006, in response to complaints by sex workers that they did not like being sent to NGO-run shelters after police raids, Afesip advisor Aarti Kapoor told The Cambodia Daily, "We don't believe prostitution is a legitimate form of work". This led Afesip to support a draconian anti-human trafficking law, which was passed by Cambodia's parliament in 2008 and, some advocates claim, ramped up police abuses against sex workers like Srey Mao.

Srey Mao said she became a prostitute because she believed it was the best option to support her aging parents and young daughter. Months in the Afesip shelter did not change her mind. She claims that after she arrived at the shelter, she was not given access to anti-retroviral drugs for five days or allowed to see her family. Instead, she was enrolled in a yearlong sewing course, entailing eight hours a day of study or garment work.

"I was not happy to be there ... Very often, during our short break for lunch, Afesip staff and sometimes Mam Somaly came to us and told us to tell donors and foreigners who would come to visit shelters that we were victims of human trafficking."

Seven months into her stay at the shelter, Srey Mao ran away and returned to life as a prostitute.

Follow Julia Wallace on Twitter: @Julia_Wallace

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Al Jazeera
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