Washington Of all the voiceless people on Earth, I can think of few more unfortunate than the multitudes — mostly women and children — who toil as modern-day slaves. They typically suffer cruelty, deprivation of their rights and unspeakable living conditions. And they face only two certainties, both unpleasant: that they will wake up tomorrow to more of the same or die.
Along the way, some — such as Somaly Mam, a Cambodian human-rights activist who was sold into brothel slavery as a child — essentially die inside. Mam is one of the lucky ones, however, for she managed to escape her tormentors and move to another continent. Others like her who are orphaned as children and shunned easily slip into slavery’s shadowy grip and accept their fate. In a perverse sort of way, they have a place, are welcome and find companionship. But their place is grim, their welcome good only so long as they obey and their companionship for sale to customers from around the world.
For a while, Mam reveled in her new, safe life. But she could not ignore a nagging impulse deep inside her being. It quickly crescendoed, pulling her back to the land where she had experienced no peace, privacy or personal dignity. She knew how many thousands of Cambodians — and millions of others around the world — lived in misery, whether in brothels or in similar conditions of forced servitude. Her hapless compatriots needed a voice. They needed an inspiration. They needed a champion.
It was no easy task. Mam found herself confronting both tradition and the indifference of too many, thereby guaranteeing opposition and danger. Still, she proceeded with her work, rescuing women and girls, offering shelter, and providing training and other assistance. Her former abusers, angered and indignant that someone — especially a former victim — would dare stand against them, struck back with all the nastiness that craven minds can muster. They issued insults and death threats, burned Mam’s home and, worst of all, kidnapped and brutalized her teenage daughter.
Yet Mam was unfazed. When you have already died inside, she says, there is nothing left to kill. Thus, she and her supporters have persisted, rescuing hundreds of Cambodians from slavery each year — for a total of more than 6,000 to date.
Some critics question such tactics, pointing out that recovery is difficult for many freed slaves. Besides, they argue, the results are at best mixed because of the absence of reliable systems of law enforcement and criminal justice, which is part of the problem. Further, there is a large and easily accessible supply of replacements; for every woman or girl who breaks free, another can be taken.
Mam acknowledges that not all of the rescued slaves recover and re-enter the mainstream. Some cannot cope and take their own lives. Others return to the brothels. But most revel in and take full advantage of their freedom, as Mam herself did.
Of course, activists such as Mam and her kindred spirits in other countries operate at a severe disadvantage. They are still building their anti-slavery campaigns and have modest resources, whereas the traffickers are well-organized and amply financed. The global recession, which has helped drive the average price of a slave well below $100, also rises against them.
Thankfully, the abolitionists are not discouraged. They need and deserve armies of supporters and sympathizers, as well as the help of governments and international organizations. If the effort were global, persistent and decisive — with the goal of eradicating human trafficking within a generation — then the slaves of Cambodia and other countries would finally wake up to a less-desperate reality.