This week at Li Po Chun UWC, we have a daily screening of the book-based television documentary “Half The Sky – Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide”. The documentary deals with the empowerment of women and issues such as gender-based violence, education and sex trafficking. Every day we watch a new episode in the geography room, followed by a discussion on the topic. Yesterday’s episode was about Sex Trafficking and focused especially on Somaly Mam, a strong, angry and yet graceful woman from Cambodia, who rescues girls as young as two years old from brothels and sex traffickers. Somaly was a child prostitute herself, sold by the age of only twelve or thirteen years as a sex slave. Her parents, as many in Cambodia, were poor and hence saw no other solution than selling their own daughter. After Somaly could finally escape from the brothel she was held in and lived abroad for a while, she founded a Cambodian non-governmental organization, AFESIP (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire), in 1996. According to Somaly’s website, “AFESIP employs a holistic approach that ensures victims not only escape their plight, but have the emotional and economic strength to face the future with hope”. Asking Somaly what her aim is, she says “we want to change Cambodia. We want that you will hear from us.”
The documentation about Somaly’s work at AFESIP was incredibly touching. Some of us who watched it, secretly wiped tears of their cheeks, while countless girls smiled and cried on the screen, singing and telling us their stories of pain and abuse. Their stories were repetitive in their plot, yet shocking over and over again. They all start similar: The young girls are sold by their parents due to poverty, or after they were raped and thereby considered impure. Some were sold to brothels at the age of two, others at four. At this young age, they are sent to clients, often ten, twelve, fifteen times a day. Resistance leads to beatings, rapes, starvations and electrocutions. One girl said “every minute of the man’s pleasure, killed me a little more”. You could see similar statements in the eyes of the other girls. Suffering day after day, the girls soon start to believe they are worthless, hating their own body. “Fragile and broken”, that is how they become. Even after they have been rescued, these girls are at the absolute bottom of society: Considered impure, “bad persons” and “called whore”, they face ignorance and lack support. Often, their parents don’t want them back.
Somaly Mam tries to save and help these girls, giving them love and affection, over and over again. Education, a home and the feeling of safety and love; these are the basics that should be contained in each and every childhood but these young girls have never faced in their lives. In Somaly Mam, they find access to them for the first time ever. Somaly lets the children speak up. In the “Voice for Change” Initiative, they speak on the public broadcast about their past. They also visit brothels to help the prostitutes with health issues and inform them about sex trafficking and protection, and offer information sessions to anyone who is interested: workers, farmers, soldiers, police officers. While seeing the girls on the screen, it seems that talking about their past to more people in their environment gives them hope for change. Contrasting the common belief of life-long entrapment in the own trauma; the girls do become stronger. It just takes time.
In the discussion after the documentary screening, many different points were addressed. Some of our students and a teacher told us more about the AFESIP camps in Cambodia as they had visited them in project weeks etc. They clarified, that many children are also easily trafficked into the sex industry as their sense of guilt of not being able to financially support their families, is abused. “It is business,” one of them simply stated, “sex trafficking is business.”
We also discussed possible solutions to the matter. Overall we agreed, that the main problem was at the roots, namely in poverty, lacking education and a poor economy. We also considered the importance of sex tourism in the matter, one of us saying that around 70% of the people entering Thailand through the Bangkok Airport are white, single men. What this meant, was clear to us all. One of us proposed, that the girls saved from brothels should not only talk about their past to more prostitutes, girls and women, but especially to boys of their same age. Most of us saw this as a good idea. This way, the girls could emotionally affect the male part of their society from the very start with their stories, explaining the effects of sex trafficking to them before they even started to think about prostitution. Addressing the boys from a very young age could also help “deconstructing the parallelism that sexual crimes are only done to women”, as one of my African co-years suggested. However, we equally all agreed that in the countries with most prevalent sex trafficking, sexual education was generally missing and in great need, so that it would be difficult for these young boys to fully understand the topic.
We ended our discussion by looking at the role of politics in the issue. A girl said: “There is no governmental rule. That makes me really angry.” Many of us shared this stance, seeing that most countries’s governments had simply different priorities than prohibiting an industry that actually even helped their own economy. However, seeing the difficulty of challenging the global problem of corruption, we also quickly ran out of ideas where to start tackling that problem specifically.
We had a very touching and inspiring 90 minutes of documentary-watching and discussion time. I saw pictures that I will most likely not forget for a while, and I heard five-year-old girls say things that will still ring in my ears for a very long time. The cruelty done to children by people is unbelievable, absolutely inhuman. I am shocked at what happens around the world with so few people noticing. I am lucky to have been born into a different society and to have been able to live through a peaceful childhood. I am more than thankful for my education. But now I am also even more sure of my task to dedicate my life to changing this world.
Note for German readers: Der ARD sendet heute Abend einen Thriller zum Thema Kinderhandel: “Operation Zucker” wird in der gekürzten Fassung 20.15 Uhr, in der originalen Version 00.20 Uhr gezeigt. SpiegelOnline schreibt: “Regisseur Rainer Kaufmann hat seinen Bildern nahezu alle Farbe entzogen und über seinen Film eine bleierne Atmosphäre gelegt. Denn der Kinderhandel-Thriller “Operation Zucker” will betrüben – betrüben und aufrütteln.”