Controversial activist fights SE Asian flesh trade
HANOI SOLD into a brothel as a child, Cambodian activist Somaly Mam has become one of the most recognisable, glamourous and controversial faces of the global anti-sex slavery movement.
The quirky, energetic campaigner boasts a string of celebrity supporters and has been named a CNN hero of the year, but she is as divisive among anti-trafficking activists as she is beloved by the international press.
Most recently, Mam kicked up a storm of controversy when she allowed her old friend, New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kristof, to live-tweet a brothel raid in the northern Cambodian town of Anlong Veng in November.
“Girls are rescued, but still very scared. Youngest looks about 13, trafficked from Vietnam,” Kristof wrote to his more than one million followers on the Twitter website, in remarks that trafficking experts say raised questions of safety and consent.
For Mam, who created the anti-trafficking organisation Afesif and now runs an eponymous foundation, the benefit of the attention Kristof brings to trafficking issues outweighs the security concerns.
“Even if you’re not tweeting it is also dangerous. But if (Kristof) tweets it, it’s better because more people get awareness and understanding,” Mam said in an interview during a visit to Vietnam.
Tania DoCarmo of Chab Dai, an anti-trafficking group working in Cambodia, said the raid coverage was an ‘unethical’ PR stunt which broke Cambodian anti-trafficking laws and which ‘sensationalises’ a very complex issue.
“Doing ‘impromptu’ coverage of children in highly traumatising situations would not be considered ethical or acceptable in the West. It is inappropriate and even voyeuristic to do this in developing nations such as Cambodia.” “This is especially true with children and youth who are unable to provide legal consent anyway,” she said.
Afesif says it has been involved in rescuing about 7,000 women and girls in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam since 1997.
In Cambodia alone, there are more than 34,000 commercial sex workers, according to a 2009 government estimate.
The line between ‘victim’ and ‘trafficker’ is often not always clear. Women who were tricked into working in a brothel may go on to recruit others in the same way.
Mam, who is in her early- 40s but does not know her exact year of birth, was sold into a brothel in her early teens by a man who she says was either her grandfather or an uncle and then repeatedly raped and abused until, after watching a friend be killed in front of her, she managed to escape.
“I was completely broken,” she said, adding that this experience of being a victim is something she cannot forget and is what drives her antitrafficking campaigning.
Within the anti-trafficking field, Mam takes a controversially hardline stance: all sex workers are victims, whether of trafficking or circumstance, as no woman would really choose to work in a brothel.
This position, which underpins Mam’s reliance on brothel raids as a tool to fight trafficking, enrages other activists, such as the Asia Pacific Sex Worker Network, which argues consenting adult sex workers need ‘rights not rescues.’