Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Somaly Mam, Sex Trafficking Survivor, Fights Slavery And HIV/AIDS In Cambodia

This story is part of a series celebrating HIV/AIDS activists in honor of Thursday's World AIDS Day.

Her house has been burned down. She's had her car jacked. Her daughter was kidnapped, drugged and raped. But still, sex trafficking survivor Somaly Mam says she would rather risk death than give up her work saving slaves in Cambodia.

Sold into prostitution at 12 by her grandfather, Mam was brutalized and raped -- sometimes up to 10 times a day -- throughout her teenage years. While Mam made an unlikely escape to France from the brothel in Cambodia, she couldn't tolerate the cushy life there knowing that thousands of girls were being tortured at home.

So in 1996, Mam returned to the slums of Cambodia and has been fighting forced prostitution and the rampant transmission of HIV/AIDS ever since.

"Our foundation is about the survivor," said Mam, who estimates her age to be about 40. "A survivor in my program means no one can feel how we feel. We know how to talk to them. The foundation empowers the victims and lets them know that we are the survivors."

Mam has saved more than 4,000 slaves since she started her advocacy work.

While an estimated 30,000 children are sold into slavery in Southeast Asia, according to The Somaly Mam Foundation, young girls -- as young as 6 -- are particularly vulnerable in Cambodia. There, it's believed that sleeping with a virgin can cure AIDS.

But at the moment a girl loses her virginity, she completely loses her allure and value.

"Once you're in a brothel, you are bad luck," Mam told The Huffington Post. "You can't get married. They completely destroy you. So you come to hate the people around you. You can't be happy."

She feels as though she will never completely overcome the horror she experienced, getting locked in a cellar with snakes, getting raped on a constant basis and watching her friend get shot and killed. Now, she says the charity she founded and runs is what gives her strength to carry on.

Mam first established AFESIP (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire) 15 years ago out of her two-room home. She raids brothels and scours health clinics for victims to save, risking her life each time as she enrages the pimps and brothel owners. Her program, which provides shelter, education and job skills to the victims of sex-trafficking, gained even more momentum in 2007 when she established her funding vehicle, the Somaly Mam Foundation.

Oftentimes Mam gets to the girls after they've already contracted HIV. But whether they're in good health or suffering with the fatal disease, Mam said she pushes all of them to meet their potential.

One survivor, who Mam named "Monday" after the day of the week she was saved, was sold into slavery when she was 6 years old. Today, she's 19 and studying law.

"She was talking about wanting to go [work at] the court because the court treated her really badly," Mam said. "She wore short skirts so the judge talked to her like it made sense that they raped her."

Part of the healing process, Mam shared from her own experience, is being honest and open with the pain she and the survivors have endured. Now divorced, Mam said she isn't interested in sex or developing intimate relationships. The smell of sperm and getting close with men is just too painful a reminder of the torture to which she was subjected.

Though she's abstaining from relationships, Mam makes sure to remind herself to tend to her needs, to stay strong and healthy to fulfill her work.

"I realized I had to take care of myself for my girls," Mam said. "I don't want any of them to get pain from me."

Want to help Somaly Mam's cause? Donate to her foundation here.


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2nd Chinese bank officially launches operations in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH,Cambodia- China's Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), on Wednesday officially opened its branch in Phnom Penh, aimed at cementing Sino-Cambodia economic and trade cooperation.

The ICBC Phnom Penh Branch is the second Chinese bank operating in Cambodia after the first one--Bank of China-- launched here in May. The bank is the kingdom's 30th commercial banks.

Speaking at the launching, the ICBC Board Chairman Jiang Jianqing said the establishment of the branch in Cambodia was not only an embodiment of ICBC's confidence in the future economic development of Cambodia, but also showed the bank's commitment to bridge Sino-Cambodia economic and trade cooperation.

"China and Cambodia have long benefited from a friendly, sincere, trustworthy and win-win partnership," he said. "The closer economic and trade cooperation between the two countries has provided wide space for ICBC's development in Cambodia."

He said the bank will reinforce its cooperation with Chinese enterprises in Cambodia and support the infrastructure development in fields like communication, transportation and electricity.

It will also extend its financial service to traditionally advantageous local industries such as grain and tourism and provide quality and convenient comprehensive financial service to indigenous enterprises and individual customers, he said.

At the meantime, Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon, minister of economy and finance, said the presence of the bank would build more public confidence in Cambodia's banking industry.

"It's great honor for Cambodia that the World No 1 class bank launches here," he said at the bank's launching.

He asked the bank to focus its loans on agricultural sector, especially rice sector, in order to help the government of Cambodia to achieve the target of exporting 1 million tons of milled rice in 2015.

Chea Chanto, governor of the National Bank of Cambodia (NBC), said the bank's presence would help attract more Chinese investors to Cambodia.

"The bank is vital to contribute to the development of Cambodia's economy," he said. "I believe that the bank would bring new technology and innovative banking products to develop Cambodian banking industry."

By the end of September this year, the customers' deposits in the banking sector grew by 17 percent to $4.72 billion, while the customer credits increased by 23 percent to $4.04 billion, according to the NBC's reports.

So far, some 1.43 million people have their money deposited at Cambodia's banks, while about 1.3 million people have borrowed money from the banks, Chea Chanto added.

During the launch, Pan Guangxue, the Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia, also expressed congratulation to the ICBC for opening the first branch in Cambodia.

"The bank will contribute to the development of economic and trade ties between China and Cambodia," he said.

He added that the bilateral trade volume between China and Cambodia had reached $1.6 billion in the first nine months of this year, an increase of 57.5 percent.

On the investment side, from 1994 to September this year, there have been nearly 400 Chinese investment projects in Cambodia with the accumulative investment of nearly $9 billion, making China the largest investor in Cambodia.

ICBC is the largest bank of China's big four state-owned commercial banks. It is ranked top among all listed banks in the world in terms of its market value, profitability, customers' deposit and brand value, according to the bank's press release.

By the end of this September, it has established 234 institutions in 31 foreign countries and regions, forming a global service platform covering the major international financial centers and China's economic and trade partners.

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Cambodian garment workers went on strike

(Reuters) - Cambodian garment workers went on strike on Monday at a factory producing clothing for global brands Gap, J.C. Penney (JCP.N) and Old Navy, demanding that the plant reinstates suspended trade union representatives.

Garment-making has been Cambodia's main manufacturing industry as it recovers from decades of conflict. Last year, the sector grew 28 percent and contributed more than $3 billion towards the country's $11 billion economy.

It employs 300,000 people, many of them women, at scores of factories, owned mostly by Chinese and Taiwanese companies but it has seen its share of industrial action over pay and conditions.

The president of the Workers Friendship Union Federation said the strike would go on until the South Korean-owned factory, Cambo Handsome Ltd, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, took back three union representatives suspended after one of them was accused of stealing two T-shirts.

The company should also withdraw what he called the trumped up charges against them.

"This is a plan by the company to remove union leaders who had advocated for better conditions," union president Sieng Sambath told Reuters.

He said about 1,000 workers were on strike but a representative of Cambo Handsome's parent company, Hansoll Textile, said only about 300 workers were out in front of the factory.

Van Rin, 31, one of the three suspended unionists, said the factory had singled him out because he was promoting workers' rights.

"Even when I went to the toilet, they followed me and took pictures, they warned workers not to talk to me and said they would not get a raise," Van Rin said.

The representative of Hansoll Textile denied that.

A representative of Cambo Handsome denied fabricating charges and said one of the unionists had been caught stealing T-shirts.

"The strike is illegal because they didn't inform the authorities," said the representative, who declined to be identified.

The representative confirmed that the plant produces garments for the Gap, JC Penny and Old Navy brands.

Cambodian factories also produce clothes for the likes of Nike Inc, Marks and Spencer Group PLC, Tesco PLC, H & M Hennes & Mauritz AB, Puma, Next Plc and Inditex.

(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Corrects to show that only one of the suspended workers was accused of theft and adds comment from company on number of strikers.


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