When I write about human trafficking as a modern form of slavery, people sometimes tune out as their eyes glaze over. So, Glazed Eyes, meet Srey Pov.
She’s a tough interview because she breaks down as she recalls her life in a Cambodian brothel, and pretty soon my eyes are welling up, too.
Srey Pov’s family sold her to a brothel when she was 6 years old. She was unaware of sex but soon found out: A Western pedophile purchased her virginity, she said, and the brothel tied her naked and spread-eagled on a bed so that he could rape her.
“I was so scared,” she recalled. “I was crying and asking, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ ”
After that, the girl was in huge demand because she was so young. Some 20 customers raped her nightly, she remembers. And the brothel twice stitched her vagina closed so that she could be resold as a virgin. This agonizingly painful practice is common in Asian brothels, where customers sometimes pay hundreds of dollars to rape a virgin.
Most girls who have been trafficked, whether in New York or in Cambodia, eventually surrender. They are degraded and terrified, and they doubt their families or society will accept them again. But somehow Srey Pov refused to give in.
Repeatedly, she tried to escape the brothel but she said that each time she was caught and brutally punished with beatings and electric shocks. The brothel, like many in Cambodia, also had a punishment cell to break the will of rebellious girls.
As Srey Pov remembers it (and other girls tell similar stories), each time she rebelled she was locked naked in the darkness in a barrel half-full of sewage, replete with vermin and scorpions that stung her regularly. I asked how long she was punished this way, thinking perhaps an hour or two.
“The longest?” she remembered. “It was a week.”
Customers are, of course, the reason trafficking continues, and many of them honestly think that the girls are in the brothels voluntarily. Many are, of course. But smiles are not always what they seem. Srey Pov even remembers flirting to avoid being beaten.
“We smile on the outside,” she said, “but inside we are crying.”
Yet this is a story with a triumphant ending. At age 9, Srey Pov was able to dart away from the brothel and outrun the guard. She found her way to a shelter run by Somaly Mam, an anti-trafficking activist who herself was prostituted as a child. Somaly now runs the Somaly Mam Foundation to fight human trafficking in Southeast Asia: She’s the one who led the brothel raid that I recounted in my last column.
In Somaly’s shelter, Srey Pov learned English and blossomed. Now 19, Srey Pov can even imagine eventually having a boyfriend.
“Before I didn’t like men because they hit me and raped me,” she reflected. “But now I think that not all men are bad. If I find a good man, I can marry him.”
Somaly is creating an army of young women like Srey Pov who have been rescued from the brothels: well-educated and determined to defeat human trafficking. Over the years, I’ve watched these women and girls make a difference, and they’re self-replicating.
In my last column, I described a frightened seventh-grade Vietnamese girl who was rescued in a brothel raid that Somaly and I participated in. That raid in the town of Anlong Veng has already had an impact, for six more brothels in the area have closed because of public attention and fear that they could be next. And the seventh-grade girl is recovering from her trauma at a shelter run by Somaly, where a girl named Lithiya has taken her under her wing.
Lithiya, now 15, is one of my favorites in “Somaly’s army,” perhaps because she wants to be a journalist and has taught herself astoundingly good English. Trafficked at age 9 from Vietnam, Lithiya was locked inside a brothel for years before she climbed over a wall and escaped. Now a ninth grader, she is ranked No. 1 in her class.
Srey Pov, Lithiya and Somaly encountered a form of oppression that echoes 19th-century slavery. But the scale is larger today. By my calculations, at least 10 times as many girls are now trafficked into brothels annually as African slaves were transported to the New World in the peak years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
So for those of you doubtful that “modern slavery” really is an issue for the new international agenda, think of Srey Pov — and multiply her by millions. If what such girls experience isn’t slavery, that word has no meaning. It’s time for a 21st-century abolitionist movement in the U.S. and around the world.