ATLANTA — Somaly Mam, an activist and survivor of sex slavery, and Dr. Susan Bissel, UNICEF’s chief of child protection, last week shared troubling statistics at a U.S. Fund for UNICEF conference at Agnes Scott College, but emphasized the power of awareness to undermine those profiting from trafficking.
Somaly Mam was born into poverty in Cambodia. She does not even know her own birth year. Her journey began when a stranger offered to help her find her parents. Now, she is a bestselling author and CNN Hero, who works one-on-one with girls and women in brothels and survivors of human trafficking globally. During the conference, she acknowledged the dangers of her work, but said she grounds her strength in her experience — the anguish of staying silent through the horrors of her childhood.
Her strength also comes from the successes of children she has saved, Mam said. She gave further credit to her team. “To fight against trafficking, we need compassion and trust … and I get that from my team,” she said at the “Human Trafficking: A Global Epidemic” conference.
Mam is fighting an enormous enemy, according to figures on human trafficking. UNICEF estimates that 5.5 million children globally live in servitude. The FBI calls Atlanta a “major hub,” and the average age of entry into servitude in the city is between 12 and 14. On an average night in Atlanta, 100 girls are exploited.
Bissel a medical anthropologist who specializes in public health, explained “poverty-plus” — conditions that increase a young woman’s vulnerability to sex slavery and forced servitude. “Plus” signifies a contributing factor that increases susceptibility, such as having family life disrupted by national conflict, experiencing violence in the home or simply being born a girl.
Somaly Mam’s “plus” condition was that she belongs to a tribal minority, which resulted in severe marginalization because of her ethnic group and gender. She escaped, but vowed to help and eventually returned to Southeast Asia. To date, Mam and her team have saved 7,000 victims of sexual slavery.
Mam showed her palm to the conference crowd. On it, written in bold black marker was the phrase, “#endslavery.” Mam says the next step is to mobilize social networks to raise awareness and she encouraged conference attendees to post pictures with the same label.
She also encouraged travelers to ask if the hotels they visit are ECPAT trained. ECPAT agreements raise awareness of sex trafficking and empower hotel and other hospitality employees to take action. The training helps staff identify warning signs and encourages direct contact with authorities.
This is not a third-world and distant problem, Bissel said.
“People stand to lose a lot of money,” she said. “We’re fighting an economy made rich from profits off the backs of women and children.”
The government system to protect children is still missing, Bissel said, even in countries with wealth such as the United States, and countries gaining wealth such as Cambodia.
Mam said the next steps to end slavery are prevention and alternatives. National conflict and family instability contributes to children’s vulnerability to traffickers. Economic stability will help prevent exploitation and forced servitude. Finally, awareness of the issue, which empowers intervention, will also help prevent human trafficking.
Alternatives must be provided for those leaving the brothels. Mam said she and her team, often at great risk to themselves, enter brothels in Cambodia to persuade women and children to leave, often under the guise of distributing condoms. But, if trafficked persons have nowhere to go and nowhere else to make money, their efforts are thwarted.
In Cambodia, cosmetic companies provided training and employment to survivors. Through the sale of its product “Soft Hands Kind Hearts,” Body Shop International raised $2 million, which it contributed directly to EPACT. Body Shop International recently won Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking’s Business Leader’s Award for its first-of-its-kind partnership with NGOs to raise awareness through social marketing and to promote change through lobbying efforts.