21st century slavery – really?!

When we talk about slavery, the first image that pops up in our minds is hard labour camps where humans are forced to do excruciatingly heavy physical work for long hours with very little food, water and rest, often accompanied by harsh whippings at the whims of their masters. We think to ourselves that those days are numbered since we’ve become more civilised.

But unknowingly, slavery still exists today. And unfortunately, in many different forms.

A few years ago, I attempted to write a series of articles touching on a specific form of slavery, which happened to be something that I was working on at that moment. I am reproducing them here.

Human Trafficking and Forced Prostitution

When you read the title above, it sounds like a mouthful. Well, it’s definitely hard to swallow especially when you think about the many implications they bring. In fact, if you think further, they are not entirely new. Centuries ago, women were trafficked to serve as sexual slaves to Kings and Emperors. At that time, it was normal and expected because there was no law to prohibit such practices and anyone beneath the King was merely an object with no rights and freedom. A person’s life was (and still is, in some countries) at the complete mercy of the King – an institution to be revered and worshipped at any cost.

Women are also often forced into sexual slavery during wartimes. Who will ever forget the images and stories of women forced to serve more than 100 soldiers at a time during the Second World War? They were not only raped, they were also forced into accepting that such violations of their bodies and dignities were ‘duties’.

So, it was nothing out of the ordinary but what’s extraordinary is that such abominable acts are still happening today, despite the universal legal enforcement of the notion that everyone is entitled to preserve his or her physical integrity and dignity. Today, there are national and international laws which specifically prohibit the trafficking of human beings and forced prostitution.

What entitles these to be called the ‘21st century form of slavery‘ is that many of the victims die of HIV/AIDS by their 20’s. Nobody really paid much attention to forced prostitution until a few years ago. The plight of trafficked women and children were silenced by the sensitivity surrounding its nature. Those trafficked and forced into prostitution were unable to express their forced volition and violations due to shame and a sense of helplessness, especially the ones who initially started off as smugglers and who were then tricked into prostitution – afraid they would face criminal charges if caught by the local authorities.

Hence, many people were deceived into believing that these sex workers were prostitutes of their own volition and deserved to be judged and condemned. Since it relates to sex, it should remain as a taboo, buried deep under the sand. And since it was “invisible” to the human eyes, who cares? What you don’t know won’t hurt you, right? A fate that is often sealed by the silence and ignorance of our society.

This is no longer true because those who were lucky and courageous enough to live to tell the tale have managed to gain our attention and so lend their voices to the many others still subject to such cruel and inhumane treatment today.

Victims for victims, women for women, human for human

In 2009, I was volunteering for an international organisation that supports the work of AFESIP (Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire/ Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances), a local Cambodian NGO, that deals with this issue.

The woman responsible for being the voice of trafficked victims in Cambodia is Somaly Mam. Some of you might have heard of her, some of you might not. She is the driving force and “the face” of the Somaly Mam Foundation and AFESIP.

I have never met her in person but have seen pictures of her and she is, without a doubt, one beautiful woman. In 2006, Glamour Magazine named her “Woman of the Year”. She was an Olympic flag bearer in the Torino Games 2006 and – on top of the various international awards she received for her effort in combating human trafficking – she has been photographed with many famous international celebrities and influential people.  It’s almost as if everyone just can’t get enough of her and she seems to be the perfect person for the job.

They say that beauty is power and Somaly certainly uses it to her and other’s advantage. She spends most of her time promoting her cause and does it successfully in terms of generating funds and support for the foundation run by her.

It must be pointed out that her beauty is definitely not her only recipe for success. What separates her from other personalities such as Nicole Kidman, Darryl Hannah, Petra Nemcova and Susan Sarandon (all famous celebrities who speak out on violence against women) is that she, too, was a victim of sexual slavery. Being sold by her adopted father at a young age, she endured all sorts of unspeakable acts including being gang-raped, held at gunpoint, stripped naked and tortured. So, when she speaks on behalf of these women, she brings a different but yet powerful dimension to those who are willing to listen.

Which was why I found it an honour to have the opportunity to work with her organisation, not because she is famous but because I was inspired by how she transformed her past experience as a victim to a survivor who gains victory for every single woman she freely gives a helping hand.

She understands and knows what these women need from a realistic point of view, including finding ways to prevent them from falling into the same trap again. Therefore, AFESIP seeks to provide a holistic approach towards protecting, rehabilitating, training and reintegrating the women back into their communities with the opportunity for employment. It is often rare to find an organisation which goes through the whole nine yards to make sure that victims are able to regain hope, dignity, self-confidence and independence.

Tom Dy Centre

I visited the Tom Dy Centre, where about 50 women rescued by Somaly Mam’s team were being sheltered. The first impression I got was how serene and normal the place looked. There was no tell-tale sign of how this place had been crashed and attacked by a mob of people (brothel owners mostly, and those who had invested interest on the lucrative sex industry) awhile back. When I met the women, they all looked so young – too young to have gone through such unimaginable ordeals.

I learned that sexual slavery does not discriminate in terms of appearances. I used to imagine that women who were being kidnapped, trafficked and forced into the sex industry must possess at least one criterion – beauty. However, I noticed that the women at Tom Dy came in different shapes, sizes and appearances. I supposed there were only two criteria; youthfulness and being female. (This does not mean that boys are free from being victims as well, but this article focuses on women.)

Everything at the centre seemed so sanitised, neat and organised. A couple of friendly dogs were running around, keeping the women company. From a distance, I could hear monotonous chantings and discovered that lessons were being conducted in a small classroom with about 6 women. The rest of them were either attending other lessons in another classroom, learning how to sew in another bigger room or at the hairdressing salon situated just outside the centre. They were not having their hair done. Some who had opted for the hairdressing training, stayed in the salon to learn and provide hairdressing services to the community around the area.

In the beautifully landscaped garden, two women sat quietly on a swing, reading. They were unwell and therefore were excused from attending lessons. At the point of writing this article a few years back, I had only realised how quiet it was at the centre. Nobody was shouting, talking on top of their lungs or laughing – the sort of noises you would have expected in boarding schools or classrooms. I wouldn’t say that the women looked miserable or depressed. Very often, they just looked curiously at me and many even smiled, but the overall ambience was subdued.

The New York Times was featuring a column about some of the women rescued by Somaly Mam. The writer managed to interview two women, and here are their stories. The following accounts are taken from Nicholas D. Kristof’s articles. I felt that there was no need for me to re-write what he had eloquently wrote. For the full article and other related topics, please click here.

These are what they do to them

(The story below is taken from “The Evil Behind the Smiles”)

Sina is Vietnamese but was kidnapped at the age of 13 and taken to Cambodia, where she was drugged. She said she woke up naked and bloody on a bed with a white man — she doesn’t know his nationality — who had purchased her virginity.

After that, she was locked on the upper floors of a nice hotel and offered to Western men and wealthy Cambodians. She said she was beaten ferociously to force her to smile and act seductive.

“My first phrase in Khmer,” the Cambodian language, “was, ‘I want to sleep with you,’ ” she said. “My first phrase in English was” — well, it’s unprintable.

Sina mostly followed instructions and smiled alluringly at men because she would have been beaten if men didn’t choose her. But sometimes she was in such pain that she resisted, and then she said she would be dragged down to a torture chamber in the basement.

“Many of the brothels have these torture chambers,” she said. “They are underground because then the girls’ screams are muffled.”

As in many brothels, the torture of choice was electric shocks. Sina would be tied down, doused in water and then prodded with wires running from the 220-volt wall outlet. The jolt causes intense pain, sometimes evacuation of the bladder and bowel — and even unconsciousness.

Shocks fit well into the brothel business model because they cause agonizing pain and terrify the girls without damaging their looks or undermining their market value.

After the beatings and shocks, Sina said she would be locked naked in a wooden coffin full of biting ants. The coffin was dark, suffocating and so tight that she could not move her hands up to her face to brush off the ants. Her tears washed the ants out of her eyes.

She was locked in the coffin for a day or two at a time, and she said this happened many, many times.

Finally, Sina was freed in a police raid, and found herself blinded by the first daylight she had seen in years. The raid was organised by Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman who herself had been sold into the brothels but managed to escape, educate herself and now heads a foundation fighting forced prostitution.

After being freed, Sina began studying and eventually became one of Somaly’s trusted lieutenants. They now work together, in defiance of death threats from brothel owners, to free other girls. To get at Somaly, the brothel owners kidnapped and brutalised her 14-year-old daughter. And six months ago, the daughter of another anti-trafficking activist (my interpreter when I interviewed Sina) went missing.

(The following story is taken from “If this isn’t slavery, what is?”)

Anyone who thinks it is hyperbole to describe sex trafficking as slavery should look at the maimed face of a teenage girl, Long Pross.

Glance at Pross from her left, and she looks like a normal, fun-loving girl, with a pretty face and a joyous smile. Then move around, and you see where her brothel owner gouged out her right eye.

Yes, I know it’s hard to read this. But it’s infinitely more painful for Pross to recount the humiliations she suffered, yet she summoned the strength to do so — and to appear in a video posted online with this column — because she wants people to understand how brutal sex trafficking can be.

Pross was 13 and hadn’t even had her first period when a young woman kidnapped her and sold her to a brothel in Phnom Penh. The brothel owner, a woman as is typical, beat Pross and tortured her with electric current until finally the girl acquiesced.

She was kept locked deep inside the brothel, her hands tied behind her back at all times except when with customers.

Brothel owners can charge large sums for sex with a virgin, and like many girls, Pross was painfully stitched up so she could be resold as a virgin. In all, the brothel owner sold her virginity four times.

Pross paid savagely each time she let a potential customer slip away after looking her over.

“I was beaten every day, sometimes two or three times a day,” she said, adding that she was sometimes also subjected to electric shocks twice in the same day.

The business model of forced prostitution is remarkably similar from Pakistan to Vietnam — and, sometimes, in the United States as well. Pimps use violence, humiliation and narcotics to shatter girls’ self-esteem and terrorise them into unquestioning, instantaneous obedience.

One girl working with Pross was beaten to death after she tried to escape. The brothels figure that occasional losses to torture are more than made up by the increased productivity of the remaining inventory.

After my last column (“The Evil Behind the Smiles”), I heard from skeptical readers doubting that conditions are truly so abusive. It’s true that prostitutes work voluntarily in many brothels in Cambodia and elsewhere. But there are also many brothels where teenage girls are slave laborers.

Young girls and foreigners without legal papers are particularly vulnerable. In Thailand’s brothels, for example, Thai girls usually work voluntarily, while Burmese and Cambodian girls are regularly imprisoned. The career trajectory is often for a girl in her early teens to be trafficked into prostitution by force, but eventually to resign herself and stay in the brothel even when she is given the freedom to leave. In my blog, I respond to the skeptics and offer some ideas for readers who want to help.

Pross herself was never paid, and she had no right to insist on condoms (she has not yet been tested for HIV, because the results might be too much for her fragile emotional state). Twice she became pregnant and was subjected to crude abortions.

The second abortion left Pross in great pain, and she pleaded with her owner for time to recuperate. “I was begging, hanging on to her feet, and asking for rest,” Pross remembered. “She got mad.”

That’s when the woman gouged out Pross’s right eye with a piece of metal. At that point in telling her story, Pross broke down and we had to suspend the interview.

Pross’s eye grew infected and monstrous, spraying blood and pus on customers, she later recounted. The owner discarded her, and she is now recuperating with the help of Sina Vann, the young woman I wrote about in my last column.

So Somaly saved Sina, and now Sina is saving Pross. Someday, perhaps Pross will help another survivor, if the rest of us can help sustain them.

Challenges faced by AFESIP

There are many causes why human trafficking and forced prostitution occur; lack of education and employment opportunities, poverty, corruption in government, social discrimination, political instability, armed conflict, relocation of communities because of mega projects without proper resettlement and rehabilitation packages, profitability, presence of organised criminal gangs, insufficient punishments against traffickers, lack of law enforcement on global sex tourism industry, growing demand for child sex workers and increased deprivation and marginalisation of the poor.

For Cambodian women, the threat is enhanced by the cultural practice where daughters hold the responsibility of looking after the family. Many, out of desperation to help clear family debts are forced into prostitution.

Which is why three of the most important aspects of AFESIP’s programme is its rehabilitation, vocational skill training and reintegration components. For them, it is not enough to just rescue the women, usually through raids conducted by its protection officers in collaboration with local enforcement authorities, but also to provide them with regular medical and psychological treatments, vocational and life skill trainings, basic education and other recreational activities with the hope of effective reintegration back into their communities.

Due to this wide range of services provided, AFESIP is faced with many challenges. Effective reintegration remains the biggest challenge because at the end of the day, the most important impact and outcome are to ensure that the women are welcomed back into their family and community with minimal stigmatisation and a certain level of financial independence through employment which can help to prevent them from falling into the same cycle of forced dependency.

First step towards rehabilitation

AFESIP has its own clinical team of doctors, psychologists and therapists who carry out regular medical and psychological assessments, including regular follow-up sessions. While successful reintegration would indicate that AFESIP’s overall objectives have been achieved, it would not be possible if the women are not healed physically and emotionally. All of these women have been subjected to many forms of physical torture and emotional trauma, some to the extent of being permanently disfigured, such as Long Pross.

In addition to this, many are infected with HIV/AIDS since many customers refuse to wear condoms and those who are courageous enough to request for it are often beaten up. Some of the rescued women have died of HIV/AIDS.

There is an endless list of damages which have been inflicted on these women and we cannot begin to conceive how long the healing process will take. For most of them, never.

A woman in training to become a hairdresser

Starting all over again

For many foreigners, Cambodian women are preferred choices as candidates for life partners. Their caring, selfless, gentle and hardworking nature, make them desirable in this modern age when women are becoming more self-reliant and assertive of their rights in almost every parts of the Western world. I’ve been told many times that Cambodian women takes the responsibility of feeding their family very seriously and this is perhaps one of the reasons why many of them are being sold as prostitutes by their own families. This culture remains strongly in Cambodia.

AFESIP provided two training options for the women at the Tom Dy Centre; sewing and hairdressing. On top of that, they were given basic education in English, Khmer and Mathematics since most of them did not even have primary school education. Other essential knowledge such as hygiene, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, labour law, human rights were also being taught.

All these courses were seen as important life skills which would facilitate the women to start their lives all over again. Somaly Mam applied very pragmatic methods to ensure that these women were not being sheltered permanently at the centre. After all, this was not the mission she set out to do.

She pushed the women to do something for themselves and believed that at the end, most of them have a choice. They could either stay in the centre to be rehabilitated and trained, or they could choose to be returned home. But for those who chose to stay, they must go through the programmes catered for them. Her view was that if the women were left there with nothing constructive to do, they would not leave but rather treat the centre as a permanent vacation home. One could easily understand why since the centre provided more comfort in many ways compared to the majority of the homes in Cambodia.

AFESIP’s training programme was rather progressive in the sense that it didn’t want to limit the women to only two options. At the NGO that I volunteered with, we helped to carry out a market analysis to provide the women with more skills and training options that would give them more employment opportunities.

This, however remained a huge challenge.

 

An empty sewing classroom at one of the shelters. Cambodia is home to one of the world's biggest garment factories.

 

Modern Cambodian dresses sewn by the women at the shelter

Dreams, aspirations and reality

I had an interesting discussion with some people I worked with – about employment opportunities for the rehabilitated women. The issue was whether an expat living in Cambodia would be willing to hire these women as nannies. This idea came about when I discovered that there was a high demand for nannies among the expat community. In Phnom Penh, there was a high concentration of international NGOs and UN agencies and since it was a family accompanied mission area, many staff brought their families along. When both parents worked, it was common for them to hire a nanny to look after their children.

Unfortunately, there was very short supply of nannies since many expats required them to speak basic English. So, I thought there might had been an opportunity if these women were trained in this field. On top of that, I also thought that perhaps it might provide a good family environment for the women. One of the main concerns we had – when assessing the types of marketable jobs for the women – was to ensure that their work environment would not expose them to the risk of being trafficked or forced into prostitution again; jobs which required them to spend a huge amount of time on the streets or at male-dominated outlets are likely to present them with such threat, although not entirely true in all instances.

However, while keeping in mind that their interest and well-being were a priority, it didn’t mean that the potential danger it could bring to others should not be considered. So, the debate was whether being a nanny was suitable for the women. Some of the comments I received were valid as well as being an indication that the stigma attached to the women, regardless of whether they were forced into prostitution or not, was very much present.

Most of the people I discussed with said that they would not be willing to hire these women as a nanny. The reasons were not solely based on the fact that they were sex workers but also the psychological vulnerability of the women. Some expressed that the women may not be psychologically well enough to be entrusted with the responsibility of handling children. This was particularly a concern if they were HIV positive also. This is a valid point especially when it involves the well-being of a child. If a nanny agency were to be established for this purpose, then there must be sufficient policies and standards to ensure accountability.

There were a few who said that they would be willing to consider if the women were indeed being forced into prostitution and a strict screening process should be carried out to determine this. Then, there were some who raised the question of whether it was a legal or ethical requirement for the women to reveal their past. My thoughts on this were that, if their past identity could become a basis for discrimination, then they should not be ethically bound by it.

Finally, there was one person who asked whether it was wise to limit the women to domestic jobs only because by virtue of that, we were narrowing down their options based on their education level. Perhaps we might want to encourage them to become more than just nannies, domestic helpers, waitresses, etc. After all, we didn’t really know what were the aspirations and dreams of these women. We might not expect them to be rocket scientists or doctors, but secretarial or managerial positions might be some of the options.

The truth was – judging from the cultural aspect and reality of the situation in Cambodia – it was not an easy task if we were to cater to each and every woman at the centre. At that time, there were more than 50 women being rehabilitated at the centre and we certainly would have liked to see the women achieve something they could be proud of, but at the same time, the more pressing issue to tackle (bearing in mind the limited resources available) was how to ensure that the women could earn some money while maintaining their dignity.

 

Two girls practising on each other. Make-up is another typical training given by the shelter

There were very few women who had seized the opportunity to hold professional jobs, mainly with AFESIP. Then, there were the majority who said that they would be happy with any job, as long as they secured one. So, in the end, it was decided that the decision remained in the women. If they desired to be something more and showed the potential to achieve that, then the doors would remain open to them.

 

Not your regular career counselling session. Here, a respondent is asked to pick the cards that illustrate the types of jobs she wants to be trained in

Heaven’s cry

There is a traditional Khmer saying, “If Heaven could cry, then Cambodia would never know drought.” That day, many years back, I heard Heaven’s cry.

One afternoon, I sat at a meeting with AFESIP, discussing our next action plan for a market research we had been doing for the past few weeks. We had prepared two separate sets of questionnaires to be answered by rescued victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution sheltered by AFESIP, and vocational training centres run by government and non-governmental organisations for disadvantaged women. The purpose of these questionnaires was to consult the women’s views on what sort of training skills would interest them as well as to understand the reality of the job markets in Cambodia.

We took a field trip to Kandal and Kampong Cham provinces to visit a girl, formerly a resident of Tom Dy Center, who was then running her own hair salon in Khsach Kandal district, and the Women Development Center (WDC) run by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kampong Cham. We soon realised that our interview with the manager of WDC ran on for more than one and half hours. We figured that we needed to be more efficient with our questionnaire as we were going to interview more than two hundred respondents in the next three weeks.

At the meeting, we discussed about the number of residents in each shelter in order to ascertain the number of days needed to carry out the interviews. At that time, AFESIP ran three such shelters in Phnom Penh, Kampong Cham and Siem Reap. We were unable to ask the residents to fill in the questionnaire since many were illiterate and instead had to rely on staff and volunteers to carry out face-to-face interviews. When we asked AFESIP how many residents were taking training courses in their centre in Kampong Cham, they told us 12 although there were 35 residents in total. We then wondered what the other 23 women were doing at the centre.

Reluctantly, one of AFESIP’s staff told us that the 23 residents were three to five year-old girls. I was unable to disguise my shock and bewilderment, much to the discomfort of my Cambodian colleague who was sitting next to me. He whispered shamefully into my ears that this was Cambodia and it was common to have girls that age to be sexually exploited. I wished I hadn’t displayed shock and remorse so openly, because many Cambodians I met had often displayed extreme shame at the atrocities committed in their country. It felt almost as if the nation had been overwhelmed by countless accounts of tragedies – from poverty to human rights abuses – which they believed happened only in Cambodia.

When I looked at the questionnaire in front of me, all those questions asking the women whether they would like to run their own businesses, or whether they prefered to learn silk weaving, etc. seemed so obscene. These questions were not meant for a 3 year-old because she was not meant to be at the shelter to begin with.

I know for a fact that child sexual exploitation was (and is) not uncommon in Cambodia. I read it in the local paper almost every other day about paedophiles being prosecuted, and I saw campaign posters against child sexual abuse on the back of tuk-tuks around the city. But not until I heard it with my own ears, did I begin to hear the weep of Heaven so loudly that even the deaf could hear.

Don’t be daft and deft

When I heard that LoyarBurok was going to have an Anti-Human Trafficking Week, I was interested to share these stories. It’s something that needs to be shared. My experience working directly with those who had been trafficked was real and it is an on-going battle for both victims and activists who fight against it. You can help the cause by taking these issues seriously and educate others about it. Don’t turn a deaf ear and rationalise with yourself that just because human trafficking does not stare at you in the eyes, it’s not real and does not affect you.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is this: Don’t be daft. If someone tells you that prostitution is perfectly fine because it’s consensual and it’s a “business transaction”, know that it’s not always the case. If you have engaged a sex worker before, you may have just slept with the enemy in exacerbating the vicious cycle of violence experienced by these women… every single day.

Human trafficking and forced prostitution are crimes that should have been abolished a long time ago.


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Ka Ea used to be a globe trotter. She has lived in Timor Leste and Afghanistan while working as a civic education and human rights officers for the United Nations. She then tried to be a full time housewife in Ethiopia and Cambodia but failed miserably. These days, Ka Ea spends most of her time at the Pusat Rakyat LoyarBurok, Ananda Bhavan and Hulu Langat. When she's not there, she can be found lying on the couch at home with two of her best friends watching So You Think You Can Dance. Among the trio, only one can really dance.

Posted on 4 September 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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